Veterans on and off the field
Former and active servicemen find connection and competition in Alcalá Park athletic circles
Kristen Gengenbacher | Contributor | The USD Vista
Many collegiate athletes have similar recruiting stories of how they ended up at the school of their choice.
They played their sport in high school. They emailed coaches. They went in for a camp. They made highlight videos. They toured the campus on official visits. They signed their letters of intent. They showed up on the first day of season, ready to prove themselves. And then, barring injuries and redshirts, after four years, they graduated and moved on to pursue their post-collegiate careers.
Every once in awhile, though, an unconventional athlete finds their way to the college playing field. Their recruiting stories deviate from the norm, and their experiences inspire those around them.
At the University of San Diego, many of these athletes are veterans in more than one understanding of the word.
San Diego, home to one of the largest naval bases in the country, is also home to many retired and active duty military. Many of these veterans take advantage of the G.I. Bill, a federal subsidy program that grants benefits to military veterans and their families, to get an education after their service is completed. As a result, USD is the school of choice for many veterans who wish to pursue higher education.
JP Bolwahnn is one of these veterans. After serving 13 years in the Navy, 12 of those as a Navy SEAL, Bolwahnn graduated from the University of San Diego in 2014. Before that, he attended Mesa Community College for two years.
In 2011, he joined the football team at USD as a running back. Although 10 years older than some of his teammates, Bolwahnn credits his maturity and leadership skills to his military experiences and life lessons.
“If I would’ve gone straight into college out of high school, I wouldn’t have had the discipline or even the gratefulness of being able to play a sport and go to school,” Bolwahnn said. “I had a totally different outlook when it came to practice and working out and that type of stuff. It’s easy to take for granted when it’s never been taken away from you. For me, it was taken away just because I had to put the whole dream on hold.”
Originally, Bolwahnn had planned to serve his country for four years — but that quickly turned into 13. Because he had not gotten recruited for football straight out of high school, Bolwahnn took his physicality and mental toughness to the military, where he excelled as a SEAL trainer. However, his return to college life wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
“It was tough going back to school, having to put time into studying and putting in the effort to get good grades,” Bolwahnn said. “It’s different. Instead of staying up all night moving with a rucksack through the woods and going on missions, you’re staying up all night in books and at the library.”
Today, two other USD athletes are following the same path that Bolwahnn forged. Senior Jack Orr of men’s rowing and graduate student Tyler Gulliksen of golf are two other military personnel who are currently bringing their leadership skills and athletic ability to help the Toreros.
Orr joined the Navy directly out of high school in 2006. Faced with the challenge of either working his way through school or entering the workforce after graduation, Orr chose to serve his country and use the G.I. Bill upon his departure from the military.
Like Bolwahnn, he attended Mesa Community College before ending up at USD. Now in his third year at USD, Orr is serving his second season as an elected captain of the rowing team.
Gulliksen, on the other hand, did his undergrad at the Naval Academy. Still active duty, he is now getting his Master’s in international relations, which he will use upon graduation to further serve his country after working in explosive ordinance disposal during his first tour with the Navy.
Both men joined their respective teams for different reasons. Orr, looking for a team to connect with and a sense of community at school, joined men’s crew as a fun and competitive way to meet people.
Gulliksen, a golfer his whole life, joined after his coach approached him with an offer for a spot on the team.
Both men are grateful for their military experiences in shaping their mindsets as USD athletes. Patience, mental toughness, and leadership are just a few of the skills that have converted from the military to the athletics world.
“Rowing is as mental as it is physical,” Orr said. “Just the mental state to sit there and choose a really hard thing to do and just go out there and do it, I’m totally grateful for that. It takes a lot of mental focus and commitment. I think about my military experience all the time when I commit to a goal.”
Gulliksen reiterated this focus and commitment in his time as a golfer for USD.
“My military experience taught me to be patient, especially on the golf course,” Gulliksen said. “It teaches good work ethic. When you’re younger you think you work hard, but then when you’re in the real world, you realize how much you took for granted. I appreciate it so much more now.”
Additionally, Orr credited his leadership skills largely to his naval training.
“My leadership style on the team is to set the example,” Orr said. “I try not to tell people too much of what to do, but instead I’ll just go out there and do it, and lead in that way.”
Orr’s “less talk, more action” mindset transfers both in and out of his sport.
As for other veterans looking for community, Orr recommended following the lead that he and other veteran athletes like Gulliksen and Bolwahnn have established.
“I highly encourage other veterans to get involved in programs on campus,” Orr said. “It really fills a gap that a lot of people assume veterans have in their lives. I don’t regret anything about it.”
For some veteran athletes at USD, it was a dream come true to play a college sport. For others, it was a good way to connect with those around them. Still for others, the opportunity arose out of perfect timing and convenience.
No matter why or how they ended up here, though, these student-athletes have shown what it truly means to be dedicated to something. Their hard work and sacrifice does not go unnoticed.