If one were to look back on a life that includes such highlights as becoming a Navy helicopter pilot, officer-in-charge of a helicopter detachment, flag aid to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, commanding officer of an amphibious assault ship, and commodore for a Tactical Air Control Group, they would most likely be impressed.
But as excitement builds at the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, one such commodore has quite a few other milestones to mention from before he was a highly decorated and respected member of the naval community.
Capt. Robert “Bob” Weissenfels, commodore of Tactical Air Control Group ONE (TACGRUONE), was a three-time letterman, two-year starter and co-captain of the 1989 football team at the Naval Academy. Football was not his only accomplishment at the school, however. He also a lettered in track and field and was named the Navy’s 1991 Male Athlete of the Year.
But none of those high accolades come close to topping the list of his individual athletic accomplishments – Weissenfels is an Olympian.
Weissenfels is a proud member of the 1992 USA II four-man bobsled team that competed in the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
“Competing in the Olympics is the most significant thing I’ve ever accomplished athletically,” said Weissenfels, an ensign at the time he competed in the 1992 Olympics.
Weissenfels’ dream of competing in the Olympics began when he was just 5 years old, but he slightly missed the mark on which event he would be competing in.
“I always wanted to be part of the Olympics. I always thought it would be track and field,” he said.
Weissenfels’ number was not called for track and field, but rather for bobsledding, a sport that he had never even trained for. As a two sport NCAA athlete and life long track star, Weissenfels was up for the challenge.
“Being prepared for the Olympics doesn’t start at the Olympic trials, it starts many, many years before that. I think people can sometimes hurt themselves by pigeon-holing themselves to one sport or one activity.”
Weissenfels’ accomplishments don’t even stop there, he stands alone as the only Naval Academy graduate to ever participate in the Winter Olympics.
“I’m pretty sure I’m still the only one,” he said.
The road to the Olympics was not a very easy one for Weissenfels. He’d only heard about the opportunity when he was at a military wide track and field event while waiting in a pool of graduates to get in flight school in Pensacola, Fl.
“I didn’t pick up a flyer,” he said. “I just thought, ‘no way.’”
After urging from a colleague, Weissenfels decided to give it a shot and drove up to Lake Placid, N.Y. for tryouts.
He earned his spot through a series of six-stage speed and strength tests and worked on various levels over nearly two years before finally fully qualifying for the Olympics.
“One thing led to another, I just slowly kind-of found myself on the team,” Weissenfels said. “Military sports association supported me during that timeframe.”
Weissenfels said during that period in history, the association did not have a the budget necessary to send full teams of service members, such as the 1920 and 1952 gold medal winning rowing teams.
“[The association] went away from supporting service teams, but there was still enough money there to support individuals who were competitive in the sport.
After getting the support of the military, all that was left for Weissenfels was to request additional time before beginning his flight training. The Navy granted the request.
Weissenfels was now ready to compete for his country. That is until a messy lawsuit was filed by a group of opposing qualifiers forced him to re-qualify with two other members of the team in Altenburg, Germany just a few weeks before the start of the Olympic games.
Three men from the original team had to compete for their dream again, and this time with the added pressure of massive financial commitments by themselves and their families to attend the Olympics. Two of the three made it back on the team.
“I barely made it back on the team,” Weissenfels said. “I had a very good first push. … My second time I got up, from the side position, I slipped. I could have either tried to stop the sled, which weighed several hundred pounds, or just let it run through and not risk injury.”
Weissenfels chose the latter and knew it would all come down to his third and final try.
“I was lucky enough to do well enough on that last run to make the team,” he said.
Weissenfels admits that he was struggling with deciding if being in the Olympics was even worth all that hassle.
“After the drama with all the trials, trying to figure out that part of it – you know, I just wanted to be an athlete. I just wanted to compete,” he said. “In my mind I jumped from the Olympic trials to sitting in the stadium during the march on – starting the game for the open ceremonies. I remember the French gentleman came in – I think he was a skier – with an arrow, shot the arrow to light the torch; and at that point nothing else mattered.”
Ultimately the team failed to medal after a series of unfortunate equipment malfunctions and finished 11th overall, but the biggest thing Weissenfels takes with him is the experience of getting there and the thrill of the opening ceremony.
“At that moment it was like ‘oh, it was worth it.’ It was absolutely perfect,” he said. “It was a defining moment for me that I think I’ll never forget.”
Twenty-two years later, Weissenfels transferred that “luck” and fortune to his Navy career after the Olympics and admits it could have been vastly different had people seen the two year Olympic hiatus as an excuse to get out of doing Navy work or as a burden.
“I feel fortunate that the people above me; who I worked for; who were part of the selection process; were able to overlook that, recognized the timing, and looked at me as an individual and not so much as a burden on other people,” he said.
Weissenfels has an outwardly apparent sense of modesty and actually hesitates to list individual accomplishments. He prefers to speak of team accomplishments.
"Capt. Weissenfels has always been a modest officer and a team player, preferring to give credit for his accomplishments to his team," said Rear Adm. Frank Ponds, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Three, TACGRUONE’s parent command. "I wasn't even aware he was an Olympian--I just knew him as a gentleman and an outstanding Naval Officer."
Weissenfels struggles with answering what accomplishment tops his list of athletic accolades and generally will go back to one that involves a few more personnel.
“I kind-of laugh because the one thing that still sticks out in my mind – probably because it’s a team thing – is winning the Army/Navy game my senior year,” he said. “Even to this day still,” he paused “is pretty powerful.”
After 24 years in the Navy, an Olympic dream realized and winning the Army/Navy football game, Weissenfels is now dreaming of his upcoming retirement and perhaps the future playing careers of his children.
Weissenfels’ son just recently agreed to play football for Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.