Evanston resident and Jamaican bobsleigh phenom Winston Watt is hoping to find the funding to take his team to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. HERALD PHOTO/Jake Hibbard
EVANSTON — The story starts with a Disney movie and an opportunistic local looking for a way to put his hometown on the map.
Evanston lawyer Paul Skog was watching the movie “Cool Runnings,” which is loosely based on the unlikely group of Jamaican athletes who banded together to form the island nation’s first Olympic bobsled team, which competed in the 1988 Calgary games. The film got Skog wondering what the Jamaican national team had been up to after its initial trip to Calgary.
After months of back-and-forth work from Skog, Evanston became the team’s official North American training headquarters. With support of the community, Jamaica sent two more teams to the Olympics, a four-man team to Nagano in 1998 and a two-man team to Salt Lake City in 2002.
The 2002 team, led by captain Winston Watts and Lascelles Brown, gained some notoriety at the games, recording both a track and Olympic record for the fastest push-start time in the two-man event, with a time of 4.78 seconds. The start stood as the track record until last year.
“[The record] is important because it proved the premise of the movie,” Skog said. “It proved that Jamaica has great athletes.”
This was achieved despite constant struggles by the team to acquire proper funding. In terms of cost, bobsledding ranks second behind only equestrian as the most expensive Olympic sport in which to field a team. A bobsleigh alone typically costs about $110,000.
After failing to qualify for the 2006 Torino games, a lack of funds prevented the Jamaicans from sending a team to the 2010 Vancouver games.
After the 2002 games, Skog figured the relationship between the team and Evanston had likely run its course. However, as Skog described, the relationship turned out to be too perfect a match to end. With Evanston being within an hour of the bobsleigh track in Park City, as well as within a day’s drive to other tracks located in Calgary and Vancouver, the city provided unprecedented access to facilities for the Jamaicans.
“I could pick them up at the airport in Salt Lake City, and they could store their equipment and their sleds here in Evanston,” Skog said. “They had three facilities all within a day’s drive and excellent weight room facilities here at the Evanston rec center.”
Skog said it was in Evanston where the duo of Brown and Watts perfected the weight lifting techniques that allowed them to compete with the world’s best. The 2010 team that fell short on funding spent nearly an entire year in Evanston training for the games.
Watts, the former captain and pilot of the 2002 record-setting team, had actually relocated his family to Evanston from Jamaica in 2004, and started working in the oil fields. Despite being retired from the sport, Watts continued to attend bobsledding competitions with Skog, and still felt a connection to the sport.
“I would watch races down in Park City, and they would give me so much energy,” Watts said.
Skog added, “You could just tell how antsy he was sitting there and watching.”
Not wanting to see the team that he loved so much fade away into oblivion, and despite already being in his mid-40s, it was in 2010 that Watts decided to come out of retirement and start training to reclaim his title as captain of the Jamaican bobsled team.
“Coming out of Jamaica, I could not make it to an Olympic team doing track and field,” he said. “So now, I made it in a sport where I’ve been to the Olympics and I’m very good at, and I always loved it since the day I started.”
Despite the fact Watts, now a dual citizen of Jamaica and the United States, will be 47 and the oldest Olympic bobsledder in history by the time the Sochi, Russia, games roll around in 2014, he is well on his way to leading his country to its first appearance in the Winter Olympics since he last competed in 2002. That is, if they can find the necessary funding.
In order to qualify for the Olympics in bobsled, a nation must be ranked in the top 50 worldwide. After placing seventh in the America’s Cup at Lake Placid in January, the Jamaican team currently ranks 42nd.
“It will all boil down to funding,” Watts said.
So far, the team has received support from Union Cellular, Perry Brothers Trucking, Inc., and T Bar S Body Shop, but is still seeking additional funds to help pay for the trip to Russia in 2014.
“I came up with the idea to bring the team here, but it never would have worked if not for the people of this town,” Skog said. “It was the people of this town who gave up themselves for this.”
For questions, comments or to donate, contact Winston Watts at (307) 708-7533. Donations can also be made at Jamaicanbobsled.com.