Despite just having a year to prepare in a new sport, Jamaica’s bobsledders were the darlings of the 1988 Winter Olympics.
They finished 30th in the 42-team two-man event and completed 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 newcomers were not listed to take part in the four-man event until Chris Stokes, who was attending the University of Idaho on a track and field scholarship at the time, showed up during the second week of the Games to support his younger brother, Dudley and his teammates.
While competing at five subsequent Winter Olympics with little preparation and financial support, the Jamaica Bobsled Federation (JBF) is desperately seeking to turn things around.
Last summer, three-time American Olympian, Todd Hays, was signed as the head coach and technical director. The former Olympic pilot, who led the U.S. team to two medals in the last Olympics in Sochi, was released by the American Bobsled & Skeleton Federation six months ago.
“Todd became available and we snatched him up,” said JBF secretary general, Devon Harris. “An accomplished athlete turned coach, he brings a tremendous amount of knowledge in terms of sled technology to the table.”
A former Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Army officer and Olympian, Harris is counting on Hays to transform a few of the country’s athletes into world-class bobsledders.
“We have never had this calibre of coaching,” he said. “We can draw on his experience, not just as an athlete but as an Olympic medallist and coach. He understood the state of our program and the fact that we have very limited funding, but saw this as an opportunity to do something special.”
Last May, aspiring bobsledders attended a training camp in Jamaica.
“We were looking for athletes with explosive speed and power,” said New York-based Harris, whose book, Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings, takes readers on a journey from his upbringing in the tough Olympic Gardens neighbourhood to the Olympics Games. The book also details Harris’ experiences in a new homeland that sees him traveling the world inspiring public and private organizations, including Fortune 100 companies and individuals about the power of passion, persistence and teamwork.
“We had them run short distances very fast, throw shot puts from between their legs and do three consecutive standing broad and high jumps,” he said.
Of a core group of 12 selected for specialized training, Seldwyn Morgan and Kleon Hall were chosen to attend international driving school classes in Utah two weeks ago.
Hall is a JDF soldier and Morgan is a G.C. Foster College student.
“Athletes from around the world were there and they were taught how to drive and given a general introduction into the sport,” said Hays, whose contract expires at the end of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games in South Korea.
The new coach also recruited Jamaican-born Kaymarie Jones and Salcia Slack, who are based in the United States. Enrolled at New Mexico Highlands University, Slack set a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division Two heptathlon record last May and Jones is the women’s sprints, hurdles and combined events coach at North Carolina’s Wingate University.
In their first ever competitive event last week, driver Jones and brakewoman Slack finished last out of 13 sleds over two runs in a North American Cup event in Park City, Utah. They were 9.9 secs. behind the winning team.
Because of limited funding, the teams will take part in at least four events in the United States this season.
Hays knows it will take time and money to get the program on track.
“Because there is no track in Jamaica, we have to travel to get to places where there are areas to train and compete and that takes money,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of financial assistance to get these athletes to those areas. Once we can do that, the athletes will grow exponentially with time. I am confident we can put together a competitive team by the time the next Games come around.”
Corporations, organizations and individuals can make financial contributions to the program by going to the JBF Facebook page and clicking on a link.
“We have five athletes in Jamaica who we are trying to get to the United States to see if they have the potential to be drivers and brakemen,” said Harris. “We are looking to develop a strong team for South Korea and we need as much help with funding to get us there.”
Harris said Canadians who make substantial contributions can request the team train here for a short period if the funding they are making can cover that cost.