PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Look, they all know this is a little funny. They saw the movie, too. The simple idea of a Jamaican bobsled team is so universally, and instantaneously, endearing and comedic that when it first happened 30 years ago at the Calgary Olympics, the entire world became fans.
So, yes, the current team – in this case, the first women’s Jamaican bobsled team to qualify for the Olympics – has jokes, too.
“The first time I was in the snow, I don’t go more than 30 seconds outside,” Carrie Russell said with a laugh.
You’ve got to play the hits. Not surprisingly, the Jamaica Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation doesn’t have much money. So little, in fact, no one thought they could even afford to send a team here to compete. What they did have, and what they could muster up, came because everyone loves the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team, whether they watched the original or the 1993 Disney movie “Cool Runnings.”
“We are very fortunate to have a very powerful brand around the world,” said Leo Campbell, president of the JBSF.
Here’s the thing, though. Listen to Russell, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian and Audra Segree (plus Anthony Watson on skeleton) and this is bigger than being entertaining, bigger than being fun-loving Jamaicans, bigger even than surprising people with a strong result, as the women say they will.
This is about unlocking possibilities, about opening up access points, about inspiring Jamaicans and anyone else who want to not just watch, but to listen. This is about changing narratives, of just going for it.
It’s about Fenlator-Victorian, who grew up New Jersey, the daughter of a Jamaican father and a German-Polish-Latvian mother, returning to her father’s homeland to find some local women to give bobsled a shot. It’s about hopefully establishing something for the long haul. There’s an impossible dream to this. If it wasn’t for them, no Jamaicans would be at these Olympics.
“To embrace that,” Fenlator-Victorian said. “To embrace my diversity. That’s why I came home. It’s important for me that little girls …
She paused, overcome with emotion.
” … little girls and little boys see someone who looks like them, talks like them, has the same culture as them, has the same crazy, curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin, included in different things in this world. When you grow up and you don’t see that, you feel that you can’t do it. And that is not right.
“So, coming back home to Jamaica, I wanted my Jamaican people to see they could do it,” Fenlator-Victorian continued. “And there is not just one path that way or one path this way to get out of poverty, to make money or to make a name for themselves. If they want to be a Winter Olympian and do alpine skiing, now they see their fellow Jamaicans doing it.”
This is a lot deeper to them than a “Cool Runnings” reboot with an all-female cast.
As much as a bobsled team from a poor, small Caribbean Island is preposterous, it’s also extremely daring – today nearly as much as three decades ago when a four-man bobsled team reached Calgary but failed to get out of qualification.
Training takes considerable time and money. While they can work on the basics of the start on dry ground in Jamaica by pushing a sled weighted with cinder blocks, to get track experience they need to go to Lake Placid or Park City or Calgary or Whistler. There is no guarantee that it will result in any success.
Fenlator-Victorian had to find some dreamers, recruiting the deep pool of not-quite good enough Jamaican track stars to give it a go. But why would they? What is this thing and what’s the point? Isn’t the bobsled just for laughs? It’s not like this pays well. Why do all that work and not qualify?
“I am a risk-taker,” Segree said. “I’m not afraid to take risks. And here I am, an Olympian today.”
Everywhere they go, people are happy to see them. Hey, it’s the Jamaican bobsledders. Jamaica doesn’t have much media, but the team’s news conference on Saturday was well attended with reporters and camera crews from around the globe. Even that begins to grind a little, though. These are competitors, not comics. They appreciate the attention, but they don’t want to just be a cute story.
“I like to prove people wrong,” Russell said.
In January, they showed up at a World Cup event and some people thought they were there as forerunners, to prepare the track for the real competitors. No one thought they could break the top 20. They came in seventh, 0.53 seconds out of first. It’s the basis for their faith here.
“We know our capabilities,” Fenlator-Victorian said.
They’ll have fun. They’ll be a part of the circus that their presence creates. They’ll do things like nickname their sled “Mr. Cool Bolt,” a nod to “Cool Runnings” and Usain Bolt. But for these women, it’s a lot more than that.
The Jamaican bobsled team is here, and this isn’t a novelty act to them.