COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Discipline and endurance are two key components for college athletes to achieve success.
For three Tennessee Tech student-athletes who compete in cross country and track & field, those traits help them to stand out as they move to the next level in their lives -- serving in the U.S. military.
Sterling Smith, who recently wrapped up his running career for the Golden Eagle cross country team, has been accepted into the United States Navy Officer Candidate School, with an aim toward the Naval Pilot Officer program.
Collin Gwaltney, a current member of the cross country team who majors in mechanical engineering, announced his plans of joining the Air Force Academy, with a goal of working in combat rescue.
Sarah Brandt, a junior on the cross country and track & field teams who is smashing school records and was recently crowned the Ohio Valley Conference 800-meter indoor champion, currently serves in the U.S. Naval Reserve program.
“We are so proud of Sterling, Colin and Sarah for their commitment to serve,” said Director of Athletics Mark Wilson. “They are dedicated to success in athletics, and we know that same level of dedication will serve them well in the service. Just watching them compete for the Golden Eagles exhibits to me, without a doubt, that they will succeed in their military roles.”
Smith will soon join the elite group of individuals who will attend the May 2016 Officer Candidate School (OCS) class in Newport, RI. Upon completion of training, he will be commissioned as an Ensign, United States Navy, in the Naval Pilot Officer program.
“I have always felt an obligation to serve my country in some capacity as a result of being raised in a family with a long military heritage,” Smith explains. “I made the decision to pursue a career in Naval Aviation the summer prior to my senior year of college. This is when I first established contact with a recruiter and began the lengthy testing and paperwork process.”
Family history and the current state of the nation helped influence his decision.
“It was a combination of the conflicts our country currently faces around the globe and the nature of my dad and brother's line of work,” Smith says. “My dad was a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps and owns a total of 38 years worth of government service. My brother is a drone pilot for an independent contractor and is currently based overseas.”
Those factors steered him toward his ultimate goal – to earn his Wings of Gold, fly for the Blue Angels, and travel to space.
And Smith’s time as a Golden Eagle runner helped prepare him for his military career.
A phone call, followed by a letter, detailed his acceptance into the program.
“It was a very special moment in my life,” he recalls. “I received a phone call informing me of my selection and an official document shortly after.”
In the letter, he is advised to prepare for the rigors of training with daily running and swimming routines.
“I am a swimmer,” he says. “Though I have not swam on a competitive level, I have acquired a swimming proficiency while cross training in and out of season. I'm currently spending a great deal of time in the pool to prepare for swimming evolutions throughout my training.”
Smith has a 10-year contract with the Navy, with eight years of active duty upon completion of two years of flight school.
Gwaltney will make the move from Cookeville to Colorado, where he will attend Air Force Academy with a plan to eventually serve in combat rescue. That will mean four years at the Academy plus two years of training.
An incident over the summer steered him onto a new path. During a trip to Colorado, his friend, Joe Keller, went missing. Keller and Gwaltney had been lifelong friends since Kindergarten.
Keller is still missing.
“Things happened over the summer and I decided I wanted to do something other than be a mechanical engineer for the rest of my life,” Gwaltney explains. He chose combat rescue, a difficult field to get into.
“Becoming an officer through the normal path after graduation is more difficult,” Gwaltney says. “To get into combat rescue is more likely through the Air Force Academy.
Brandt is member of the U.S. Naval Reserve. An interdisciplinary studies major with a concentration in journalism communications, she trains one weekend each month with the Reserves while being a current member of the track and cross country teams. Not only has she etched her name numerous times into the Golden Eagle record book, but she has also emerged as a team leader seven days of the week, not only in competition but also in practices, in the classroom and on campus.
It’s that combination of leadership qualities that have allowed the junior from Oroville, Calif., to be named as the Athletic Department’s recipient of the Unsung Leader Award for January. She was a junior college All-American who posted some of the fastest times nationally and also ranks as the 12th fastest time in school history.
“While I was in junior college, my twin brother (Russell) convinced me,” she recalls. “He explained that we could do all three -- military, running and college. We got everything we wanted at that point.”
She explained that the two were close growing up, so when they discussed the military options, it seemed a natural fit for both.
“It’s really just a “buddy thing” with Russell and me. We did a lot together when we were younger, running, playing sports, we were best friends. We did everything together, we went everywhere together. We had the same interests, the same passion for health,” Brandt said.
When each was selected to be an Exchange Student for one year, Sarah went to Berlin, Germany and her brother landed in
“I learned a new language, we learned to be away from home, it was a really awesome experience,” she said. “It kind of proved that we could do this.”
Tech’s Smith, Gwaltney and Brandt -- a trio of spectacularly hard workers -- have proven they meet a high standard of discipline and commitment.