LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- With his black, skintight racing suit revealing a physique he wasn't quite ready to put on display, John Napier paused under the blue Adirondack Mountain sky and dreamed about Christmas.
"I'm probably going to turn into a vegetative state and watch lots of cartoons and drink chocolate milk and egg nog," Napier said when last weekend's World Cup bobsled races on his home track at Mount Van Hoevenberg were finished.
Not exactly what one might expect from a world-class athlete. Then again, Napier is a notable exception.
Napier has been a member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, which provides Olympic athletes the financial backing they need to pursue their chosen sport. The program is billed as a way for soldier-athletes to reinforce a positive image of the military and also serve as role models.
Napier went above and beyond the call of duty. He figured at the ripe old age of 23 that it was time to grow up, so he volunteered for a tour of duty with the Vermont National Guard in Afghanistan and was deployed in June.
"Some of the only ways you can grow is to go through certain tough, rough circumstances in life," said Napier, who happily celebrated birthday No. 24 two weeks ago. "Otherwise, you're just kind of happy and enjoying life and it doesn't motivate or push you to change as a person. Really, going over there was a me experiment, see what I could experience and what kind of perspective I could gain out of life."
Eric Duncan was Napier's first sergeant in Afghanistan, and he has had plenty of interaction with athletes in the program. Napier easily stood out.
"We've seen what these men and women have to do to get to that level of competition," said Duncan, of Northfield, Vt. "To say, 'Hey, I'm going to put that on hold, I'm going to get extremely skinny.' It was a huge commitment for him to come over, but we were able to bring all 191 pounds of him home. We're happy about that."
Napier was military-trained to be a plumber when he arrived at Bagram Airfield, home to about 40,000 soldiers about 25 miles from the capital of Kabul.
"They were going to give him a cushy little job," said Duncan, who's done three tours of duty in the Middle East. "There was a huge gym there, chow halls that had even midnight rations, so he probably could have come back a lot heavier and a lot stronger."
Napier wasn't interested. He wanted to contribute as far forward as he could get, and the Army accommodated with an opportunity as a fire team leader in Duncan's heavy weapons infantry company.
This was not a cushy job. Napier was transferred to a remote outpost in the Paktia province near the Pakistan border and had to tote an automatic weapon weighing more than 22 pounds when fully loaded with a 200-round magazine.
On his first day, he earned a combat badge when his platoon came under sustained enemy fire.
"Our base camps were at 7,000 (feet). We were fighting that day between 9,000 and 11,000 feet," Duncan said. "It was a pretty good jaunt from what he was used to. But he came in and did the right things immediately. He kept his eyes open and his mouth shut and he learned quickly.
"John never asked once, 'How can I make my life or my situation here better?' He was always worried about the guy to his left or right."
"John was always out there with us, never turned down a mission," said Matt Hefner, a mortarman from Pittsfield, Vt. "He was always ready to go."
On his second day, Napier went on a 10-kilometer dismounted movement at 10,000 feet, and on the third day it was 12 kilometers, all the while encountering contact with enemy troops.
"It was an exciting first three or four days. Throw him in the mix," said Napier, who drove USA-2 to a 10th-place finish in the Olympic two-man race at Whistler last February, then crashed in the four-man event. "I definitely was feeling overwhelmed -- way in over my head. But standing at the top in Vancouver was kind of the same feeling. The first time going down in four-man, 'I'm way in over my head right now.' "
Back home, U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer was thinking the same thing.
"Being pinned down. It was a daily ritual of wondering -- how's he doing?" Shimer said. "I was hoping and praying that that call wasn't going to come. It was a little bit stressful. I couldn't imagine having my kids out there and just never did until John went over there. John's one of my kids. I've never had as close a tie to somebody that's been so close to it."
Napier practically grew up on the bobsled track outside Lake Placid. He has a home on Bobrun Road, which leads to the track, and his late father, Bill, was a bobsledder and also served as president of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF).
Even though Napier has always thrived in the cold -- winter temperatures often dip well below zero and can be so very biting in and around Lake Placid -- one of his biggest struggles in the war zone was coping with the nighttime cold.
"I remember a couple of nights when we first got to our new outpost, it was so cold that I was sleeping with three or four uniforms piled up and three or four sleeping systems as well," Napier said. "Here, you can go places to warm up. When you're sleeping in a tent and you don't have any heat source, what are you supposed to do?"
Despite his precarious situation, Napier's mind often focused on his bobsled career. He had won his first World Cup gold medal in November 2009 to help solidify his spot on the U.S. team, behind only star Steve Holcomb, but doubt quickly creeped into his mind.
Working in a weight room made from coffee cans full of sand and rock wasn't going to keep him in top shape.
"He was worried about getting bumped down out of the top three sled teams," Duncan said. "He was getting really concerned about being able to report back that he was still trying to stay competitive. We built gyms out of scrap lumber. We did everything we could to bring him back as strong as possible."
The 6-foot-4 Napier dropped about 30 pounds while serving. That wasn't all that was noticeable when he arrived back home last month.
"I was kind of expecting him to be a little bit crazier and loud, and he was this composed man," said Amanda Bird, who handles public relations for the USBSF. "I'm like, 'You really grew up.' "
Napier confesses that he still has trouble sleeping, a normal result of being immersed in a war zone. He missed training on the Thursday before the Lake Placid World Cup races because he was too tired, but knows the sleepless nights will eventually subside.
In his mind, it's a small price to pay for what he accomplished.
"It really did give me some great perspective to where now I hope I can be a better leader for my team, a stronger leader, and when I do come back athletically a better champion and I hope more humble and more competitive in my mind frame," he said. "I absolutely have noticed the change (in myself), and I like it."