By RON FANFAIR
Olympic Gardens, the volatile Jamaican neighbourhood in which bobsledder Devon Harris was raised, is a world away from the Olympics, where he’s a three-time competitor.
Harris overcame obstacles and hardships in the tough community named to recognize the outstanding performances of Jamaica’s 1952 Helsinki Games Olympians to become a proud soldier, sportsman, motivational speaker, author and ambassador.
The high school track star attended the prestigious Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, rose to the rank of captain in the Jamaica Defence Force and was a bobsled participant in three Winter Games.
Harris, who is now an American citizen, later became a motivational speaker, inspiring public and private organizations, including Fortune 100 companies, about the power of passion, persistence and teamwork. He is also an author, having just released his second book, Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings.
The book will be launched in Canada on December 6 at the Jamaican Consulate in Toronto.
“I am more excited about this book than I was when I took my first bobsled run – and probably as terrified,” Harris told Share from his upstate New York residence. “I have wanted to bring together in one book all that I have learned along the way from my student days in Kingston to the Olympics which changed my life forever.
“At the heart of this book are the lessons I have learned of the power of persistence over all sorts of obstacles in order to live one’s best life. My mission is to bring this message of how everyone can keep on pushing and working for their dreams every day of their professional as well as their personal lives.”
Born on Christmas Day 1964, Harris is thankful for the many gifts he has received, including an invitation to be associated with a sport he had no knowledge of until his commanding officer instructed him to report for bobsled trials in 1987.
“The first time I heard of the sport was by reading the Army’s weekly bulletin (Force Orders), where there was an advertisement for individuals interested in representing Jamaica at the1988 Calgary Olympics,” Harris recalled. “I thought it was a joke because we had never been exposed to the sport and we did not have the facilities or the climate for it.”
American businessmen George Fitch and William Maloney hatched the idea to start a bobsled team while socializing in a Kingston nightclub. Based on the athleticism and inventiveness they witnessed in the local pushcart derby, they concluded that Jamaicans could be competitive in bobsled.
Their next move was to sell the idea to the Army which bought in. After a two-day trial that consisted of sprints and jumps to determine the athletes speed and explosive strength capabilities which are critical elements of the sport, Harris made the squad and was soon off with the rest of his teammates to Lake Placid in New York to meet coach Howard Siller.
With limited preparation in Calgary and Innsbruck in Austria, the raw Jamaican unit still managed to finish 30th in the 42-team two-man event and complete the four-man race following a spectacular crash when driver Dudley Stokes lost control of the sled while coming out of a challenging turn on the track.
The Jamaicans showed significant improvement four years later in Albertville with the two-man sleds placing 34th and 36th respectively out of a 49-team field. The four-man sled placed 25th, finishing ahead of 11 teams.
The team’s performance in the French Games was extraordinary considering the squad practiced in Jamaica on an obsolete make-shift push sled on a concrete surface at the Army base prior to going to Europe to start serious training.
In his last Olympics in Nagano, Japan in 1998, Harris and Michael Morgan was the 29th team to cross the finish line out of the 36 that completed the race.
Harris’ first book, Yes, I Can, tells the story of the original bobsled team overcoming overwhelming odds and displaying courage to pursue their dreams and win the hearts of the world. Their remarkable story was captured in the film, Cool Runnings, an uproarious comedy about the embryonic bobsledders.
“I am, of course, incredibly appreciative for all that I have accomplished, but I did not want to stop there,” said Harris. “I wanted to know how I could encourage as many others of all ages and backgrounds to rise to the occasion in every facet of their lives too. And it is important to me that this message is communicated with joy and enthusiasm.”
This will be Harris’ third visit to Toronto. He came here in 1992 on a promotional tour shortly after the Albertville Olympics and again in September 2006 to promote Yes, I Can and participate in a few activities for Right to Play which he joined nine years ago. He’s an ambassador for the athlete-driven and humanitarian organization that uses sport and play to enhance child development and build community capacity for young people in refugee camps and disadvantaged communities in Africa and other parts of the world.
He said he’s looking forward to next month’s visit.
“Toronto is one of those cities that you would describe as a melting pot,” he added. “It’s always great to go somewhere and still feel at home because you are around a lot of Caribbean people.”
The book launch at the Consulate at 303 Eglinton Ave. East starts at 6 p.m.