Interview with Devon Harris, Co-founder of Jamaica Bobsled Team

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Devon Harris is a retired 3-time Olympian who represented Jamaica at the 1988, 1992 and 1998 Winter Olympics. He was co-founder of the improbable Jamaica national bobsled team, an upstart squad of warm weather athletes who broke into a cold weather sport at the 1988 games in Calgary, Canada. Though they failed to land a spot on the medals podium, their story and determination fired up the world’s imagination and even caught the attention of Hollywood, which released a film called ‘Cool Runnings’ loosely based on their experience. Harris’ personal life embodied the resolute spirit and optimism of a young man who refused to succumb to the adversities of slum life in his native Jamaica. Today, he is an author, philanthropist, and a sought-after motivational speaker www.DevonHarris.com. He is also founder of ‘Keep On Pushing’, an educational program for disadvantaged kids. Sports History Magazine asked Devon to share his remarkable story with our readers.

You grew up in a tough area of Kingston, Jamaica. Tell us a little about your childhood and the challenges you faced.  I grew up in an impoverished neighborhood and there were times, especially in my late teens, when we had to go to bed hungry. Violence was ever present and I lived with the constant fear that I could get caught up in it. However, although the path wasn't clear nor guaranteed, I was always optimistic that I would get out.

You joined the military and attended the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. Why did you decide on this career and how did that experience shape you?  This path started with stories my grandmother used to tell me about all the "impossible" feats soldier could perform without getting injured. The most important thing about those stories is that they inspired me to pursue things that seemed difficult or impossible. So when I discovered that I could enlist as an officer, that became the goal. Being at Sandhurst was a huge transition for me. It was my first time out of Jamaica and really, I was fresh out of the ghetto and placed smack in the middle of the prestige of the academy. I figured out very early on that I had to adjust quickly, get a handle on feeling homesick, lonely, and other such emotions such as dealing with being "different" in order to focus on what needs to be done in order to achieve the goal. It has been a valuable experience which I have been able to continue to lean on.

Jamaica is known for producing world class Track & Field athletes. How did the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team come about?  Two Americans who lived in Jamaica saw our push cart derby and thought it looked like bobsledding except for the ice. When they discovered that a big part of the race was the start and Jamaica was awash with sprinters, the idea of the team seemed a no-brainer to them. However, none of the guys on the summer team wanted to do it. Undeterred, they came to the army looking for athletes and as they say, the rest is history.

What did fellow athletes think when you first discussed it with them?  We did not know each other before the team trials. My army friends thought it was a crazy idea and I remember saying that it was the most ridiculous idea ever conceived by man and no one could ever get me to go on one of these things. Of course, my attitude changed once my commanding officer suggested that I try out for the team

How did you raise the funds to start competing and where did you train?  We were initially funded by George Fitch, one of the Americans who came up with the idea to start the team. We also printed and sold t-shirts. Shortly after the team was selected in mid-September 1987, we trained on the army base in Kingston by pushing a makeshift sled for three hours every afternoon during the week and six hours on a Saturday morning. We then went to Calgary in mid-October, Igls, Austria, and then Lake Placid, N.Y. in January, 1988 before going back to Calgary for the Olympic Games.

You debuted at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, but you ended up crashing and not finishing the race. That must have been very disappointing.  That crash was a massive failure and represents the low point of our experience. Not only had we given credence to all the people that believed we did not belong in the sport but more importantly, we felt we had let down an entire country. That was a heavy burden to bare.

Nevertheless, Jamaica was the darling underdog squad in a field of hardened cold weather teams. You must have been showered with lots of support and media attention.  The attention was unexpected, flattering, and at times a little distracting, but nonetheless appreciative.

Jamaica returned to the bobsled event multiple times, but the team never came close to winning a medal. Fundamentally, what does it take to be successful in this sport?  Success in our sport is for the most part something that you buy. In other words, you need a lot of cash over an extended period of time to allow the team to train at a high level. Unfortunately, we haven't yet cracked the code to raise the adequate funding.

Interestingly, the Jamaican women's team started competing in 2018. What are their prospects for reaching a medal and are you involved in coaching them?  I am not involved in coaching the women's team and have now recently stepped back from my involvement in the overall program. However, I think the women's team has the same potential for success as the men do. With proper funding, the teams, both men and women, have the potential to be very competitive.

Did other tropical nations approach you for advice about entering into the Winter Olympics?  They didn't approach us but they and others were certainly inspired by us.

Hollywood released a comedy film in 1993 called 'Cool Runnings' that was loosely based on your team's story. What did you think of it?  They certainly took a lot of poetic licensing. It was loosely based on the true story but I thought it was a good human interest story. I thoroughly enjoyed it not only for the entertainment value but for the incredible life lessons as well.

Today, you are a sought-after motivational speaker and are also active in children's charity. What messages do you give adults and kids about overcoming odds and staying positive?  They have to find a way to Keep On Pushing! There is always a way to get past the obstacles in your way, so keep your eyes on the goal and keep looking for a way to get to the goal. The fact that you are constantly doing something despite the obstacles helps to keep your spirits up and strengthen your resolve.

Other Interviews Enjoyed:  Scott Hamilton (figure skating gold medalist), Kathrine Spitzer (first female marathoner), Jim Kelly (QB for Buffalo Bills).

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