05/08/2012 02:07 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

US bobsled driver John Napier decides to retire from sport; will pursue a military career

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - After serving as a fire team leader deep in the mountains of Afghanistan and toting an automatic weapon weighing more than 22 pounds when fully loaded with 200 rounds, bobsledding just wasn't the same anymore for John Napier.

So, nearly two years after that life-changing, five-month stint with the Vermont National Guard in the midst of a foreign war, the No. 2 driver on the U.S. bobsled team behind Steven Holcomb has decided to give up the only life he's ever known to pursue a career in the military.

"It kind of changed me being over there," Napier said Tuesday. "I loved it and I loved being with the guys. Since I've been home, I've missed that life. There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss being over there and being with the guys I was with."

Napier told his teammates last week that he was leaving the team to concentrate on becoming a member of a special forces unit.

"He's been talking about it," Darrin Steele, chief executive officer of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, said. "He had some second thoughts when he first came back. He was trying to figure out if he wanted to go on with the military or jump back into bobsled.

"It wasn't a big surprise that he finally made the decision and we support that," Steele said. "We back the guy up. He's a patriot. We'd love to keep him driving bobsleds, but at the same time we're building some depth, so we're going to focus on the next guys in line. We're ready to go either way."

The 25-year-old Napier, a member of the Vermont National Guard as a slider, volunteered for the tour in Afghanistan after competing in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics where he drove USA-2 to a 10th-place finish in the two-man race and crashed out of the four-man event.

Napier was deeply affected by his military sojourn. On his second day, he went on a 10-kilometre dismounted movement at 10,000 feet, and on the third day it was 12 kilometres, all the while encountering contact with enemy troops.

"It really did give me some great perspective," said the 6-foot-4 Napier, who dropped about 30 pounds during his military tour and never regained it all. "I started bobsledding at such a young age. I love the sport, but I see myself being in the military. I would like to be in one of the more elite fighting forces if I meet the requirements and if they accept me. Right now, it's just a process of me training and trying to get into shape and seeing if I'm up to par and good enough to be accepted in one of those units."

Napier's well-being had been a concern for the federation. Coaches and officials wanted to make sure that he wasn't overwhelmed while getting readjusted to normal life, and that he wasn't dealing with any sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome that many soldiers experience after coming home.

Napier, a native of Schenectady, N.Y., practically grew up on the bobsled track at Mount Van Hoevenberg outside Lake Placid, starting when he was only 8. 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 federation.

Napier won his only World Cup gold medal in November 2009 in a two-man race on his home track and finished fourth overall in four-man and eighth in two-man on the World Cup circuit in 2009-10. This past World Cup season he never cracked the top 10 in either discipline but did finish sixth in two-man at worlds, an indication he was rounding back into form.

Steele said Nick Cunningham, of Monterey, Calif., and Cory Butner, of Yucapia, Calif., likely will challenge for Napier's spot on the U.S. team heading to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Cunningham, who finished ninth in two-man and 13th in four-man as a rookie driver at the world championships in Lake Placid in February, was the overall points leader and the two-man champion in America's Cup competition, while Butner claimed the four-man title in the lower-tier series.

"They showed a lot of growth last year," Steele said. "We think Sochi's going to be a pusher's track, and they're pushing drivers. I think we'll be ready to go with these guys."