UNLIKELY HEROES - JAMAICA TOURIST ISSUE 8
Most people laughed in disbelief when rumors of Jamaica’s intention of entering a bobsleigh team at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics spread across the world like wildfire. Bobsleigh? Jamaica?? People shook their heads at the idea of the small tropical country, famous for palm-trees and reggae, successfully competing in an Olympic winter sport and quickly dismissed the idea as a fad. But the unlikely story struck a cord with audiences across the world and rarely has an Olympic team made more impact in their quest to take home a medal. Today, the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team is a mainstay at the Winter Olympics and their very existence has become a symbol of overcoming adversity that transcends borders.

20 years after bursting onto the global sports scene, the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team continues to bring their sunny presence into the white winter climes with their green, black and yellow uniforms. Armed with the national colors that represent the overcoming of struggles, prosperity and sun, their story is ample proof that anything can be achieved with hard work and determination. Says Nelson Christian Stokes, member of the original 1988 Calgary team and an active competitor for 11 years; “On a personal level, being part of the team has given me a certainty that I can do anything, no matter how intimidating it may seem at the beginning.”

Stokes was thrown into the midst of the action with less than one week of bobsleigh training, when one of the original team members, Caswell Allen, fell on the push track during training. Thus, Christian joined the first-ever team that competed at the Calgary games, consisting of his brother Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Devon Harris and himself. How did it feel to be on the start-line that first time? Says Stokes; “In retrospect, it was very scary! However, at the time I was completely focused on the task that was before me. I could not allow myself to think of the magnitude of the challenge, because then I would tune into reality, realize that the odds were against me and I would not have tried. Sometimes ignorance makes us brave and it pays off.” 

Stokes was to become a real bobsleigh veteran with four Winter Olympic Games under his belt. 

Their first Olympic Games in Calgary, 1988, were marked by injuries and crashes. Remembers Stokes; “Calgary, of course, will always be special. But I’ll never forget smelling fiberglass burn on ice during my first bobsleigh crash.” 

The squad improved dramatically for the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France. However, their existence was finally vindicated at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where the Jamaican 4-man team came in 14th, beating favorites that included the US, French, Russian and Italians teams. Says Stokes; “I heard my brother, the team driver, banging on the cowling of the sled at the end of our last run, and I knew we had done really well. It is one of the most memorable moments of my bobsleigh career.” Out of 30 sleighs, Jamaica was ranked 8th nation overall. 

Posting a 29th place finish in the 2-man bobsled event at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the team went on to take gold in three events at the 2000 and 2001 World Bobsled Push Championships in Monte Carlo. The Jamaican 2-man team posted the fastest start time of the games at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but disappointingly the teams failed to qualify for the finals at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. 

The success of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Team has been measurable in terms of sports, but immeasurable in terms of inspiration. They may not have brought back a medal, but the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team has achieved fame beyond their wildest dreams. Says Stokes about the motivational power of the team, and the gigantic response the team has received; “The many letters that we have received from young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick confirms to me that we have indeed given some people a reason to let their light shine and to overcome their fears.” 

Stokes has documented the remarkable story in his account ‘Cool Runnings And Beyond’, which we consider a ‘must-read’ for both young and old. The title for the book is based on the Walt Disney motion picture ‘Cool Runnings’, which is loosely based on the exploits of the 1988 team and features the late John Candy as the team’s coach. Says Stokes; “The ‘And Beyond’ part refers to the story beyond the movie.” For those of us who need a further explanation, ‘Cool Runnings’ is a Jamaican expression that essentially means; “No matter what else is going on, what challenges you may face; take it easy, take it cool and just keep moving along.” 

Anyone who has ever tried to accomplish ‘the impossible’ should read the story, which has warmed the hearts of underdogs around the world. One particular tale in Stokes’ book has made an ever-lasting impression on readers worldwide. Shares Stokes; - “Some years ago I got a request from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which seeks to facilitate the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, to meet a little girl called Lindsey. That blessing was mine.”  

Stokes went to meet Lindsey in Montego Bay, while she was on a cruise. He recalls the powerful meeting; “Terminally ill, she inhaled each moment of life because it was, to her, precious. She wanted to know what made us want to overcome the challenges of going to the 1988 Games. I could not answer coherently because I knew from talking to her that the universal spirit that kept her taking the next step despite the pain, and kept her parents hoping for her recovery despite the expert’s opinion to the contrary, is the same spirit that kept us going in 1988. Even at 13, she had a love for life and a flame in her eyes which left an impression with me.” 

Lindsey had become inspired by the true story behind the movie, ‘Cool Runnings’, during her endless hours in the hospital. Explains Lindsey: “The film is about four Jamaicans who overcame enormous obstacles to achieve their dream of competing in the Winter Olympics as bobsledders. Their triumph over adversity inspired and motivated me to conquer cancer and face the world, determined to return to living a full life.”   

Continues Stokes;- “Some years later I was contacted by her husband who said she survived her cancer and has always credited that to inspiration from the Jamaican Bobsleigh team. She is now a lawyer and works for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.” 

Years after their encounter, Stokes received a letter from Lindsey herself; “I cannot thank you enough for what your story of determination over adversity has done, and continues to do, to motivate me.” On her desk at work, sits a picture from her Make-A-Wish meeting with Stokes. Says Lindsey; “The Make-A-Wish Foundation provided me with the chance to meet a real hero who challenged me to face everything life could throw at me with confidence, determination and commitment. Meeting Christian in Jamaica was a pivotal moment in my recovery. He is truly an amazing person and an excellent representative of the kind spirit the people of Jamaica possess.” 

The Make-A-Wish Sponsorship Marketing Manager says that the Foundation’s mission is to grant the wishes of children with lifethreatening medical conditions, to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy. Says Lindsey; “The Foundation grants approximately 13,000 wishes a year… that’s 41 wishes every minute… and nearly 160,000 wishes granted to date! But, without a doubt, my wish is my favorite wish the Foundation will ever grant!” 

20 years after the team’s first Olympic Games, the quest to bring back the ultimate honor continues, and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team is set for a big come-back at the 2010 Winter Olympics Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. Says Stokes, who is also a Director for the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation; “We plan to send both a 2-man and a 4-man team to compete and expect to do very well. Our team is new and young and now in training in Park City, Utah.” 

We wish our inspiring Jamaican Bobsleigh Team: Cool Runnings!   

THE COOLEST HANGOUT ON THE ‘HIP STRIP’ 

Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the ‘official’ bobsleigh hangout while on the island, The Jamaican Bobsled Café on the ‘Hip Strip’ in Montego Bay. Get your T-shirt signed by Olympic bobsleigh competitor Wayne Blackwood, who is typically there to meet & greet on Wednesdays and Thursday from 11:00am till 3:00pm. Decorated in the signature colors of the Jamaican flag, the Bobsled Café showcases the many achievements of the Jamaica Bobsled Teams, the biggest attraction being an authentic bobsleigh. After a couple of signature drinks like the ‘Rasta Relaxer’ or the ‘Bombshell’, you can close your eyes, climb into the Café’s bona fide bobsleigh and imagine yourself flying down a tunnel of ice at amazing speeds. Satisfy your taste buds with eight different Brooklyn style pizzas, burgers and authentic island dishes like ‘pepper pot soup’. You can also visit the Jamaican Bobsled Café and souvenir shop at the MBJ Airport Mall. Open daily from 11:00am to midnight weekdays / 2:00am on weekends. Tel: 940-7009
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