Kelly Curtis prepares to compete.
Kelly Curtis had a lot of explaining to do when she arrived at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in July for eight weeks of basic military training.
Curtis, 31, isn’t the typical airman. The native of Princeton, New Jersey, had to explain to fellow recruits that she’s a world-class racer in the skeleton, which is like the luge, except competitors slide head-first and face down around the ice track at speeds up to 90 miles per hour.
She also told them that her job in the Air Force, at least at first, will be to train for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
“So there was a lot of mutual respect,” Custis said. “I respected the women I was going through basic training with right away. … If you tell anybody you’re training for the Olympics, then all of a sudden they have a lot of respect for you as well.”
Curtis graduated from basic military training on Aug. 27. She’ll eventually get a top-secret security clearance, and the Air Force will train her for a job in cyber surety to ensure the security of computer networks and online communications.
For now, though, Curtis is focused on representing the Air Force and Team USA at the same time.
Curtis said she’s the first civilian to be recruited for the Air Force World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which allows elite American athletes to enlist in the Air Force and then continue training full-time in their respective sports. The U.S. Army has a similar program.
“To be able to represent the Air Force as well (in the Olympics), I mean that would just be a cherry on top,” Curtis said. “They have already been very supportive of what I’m trying to do, and they’re still trying to figure out how to help me more.
“I guess it would just mean the world. I would be able to represent my country as more than just one uniform.”
Curtis signed a four-year contract with the Air Force.
Unlike Air Force Academy cadets who have starred as college athletes and then joined the WCAP after graduation, Curtis didn’t have a military background before applying for the program earlier this year. She instead has worked to establish herself as an Olympic hopeful in the skeleton.
She’s had success so far on the development circuits. Curtis won the IBSF North American Cup season titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19, and in February, around the same time she was introduced to the WCAP, she was crowned the overall winner of the IBSF Intercontinental Cup.
Curtis will take part in the Team USA skeleton trials in late October or early November and then be assigned to compete in one of four skeleton circuits in preparation for the Beijing Winter Games.
Curtis is also planning to soon move with her husband to Utah, where she’ll be close enough to both an Air Force base to work and Park City, where she can continue to train in the skeleton.
“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to serve in the military because I was always so invested in sports,” Curtis said. “Like as an undergraduate, I knew of the ROTC program, but I never thought I could do that.”
Curtis’ older brother, Jimmy, enlisted in the Air Force in 2004. Her grandfathers and several of her uncles also served in the military, but she instead was an athlete like her father, John, a tight end who was drafted into the NFL.
Curtis started thinking about a military career after four-time Olympic skeleton slider Katie Uhlaender told her in February that the Air Force was looking for elite athletes for its WCAP.
Uhlaender knew that Olympic pentathlete Eli Bremer had competed in the Air Force WCAP. Two members of the U.S. bobsled team, Dakota Lynch and Chris Walsh, are also part of the program.
Curtis said she learned she had qualified for the WCAP because she had made the U.S. national skeleton team. She decided to go ahead and apply for the program just as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading through the U.S.
“Because my brother had served in the Air Force and I knew that they take care of their people, I was like, yeah, I’d rather take my chances with the Air Force and see if I can get in,” Curtis said. “And it took awhile because that was right when the quarantine started to happen, so the paperwork got held up for a bit.
“And then once it finally got through and I got that call that I’d be going to basic military training, I was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”
It has been the latest in an unusual career path for Curtis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sport management from and then went to graduate school for educational leadership.
Curtis assumed she would become an athletic director like her father, following his NFL career. That changed, however, after Curtis, a former college heptathlete, tried out for the U.S. bobsled team while in graduate school and then discovered the skeleton.
“I’ve always been around that (athletic director) scene anyway, and I thought I was going to set myself up for that career,” Curtis said. “And then life took its turns, and here I am representing the Air Force in skeleton.”