Jamaicans find ice slippery on way to Vancouver

BY foxsports • November 6, 2009

More than two decades later, the story hasn't changed for the fabled Jamaican bobsled team. A handful of young men from the Caribbean island nation, all physically blessed with speed and power, embark on an Olympic odyssey. Unable to quickly fulfill their quest in track, they put their disdain for ice and snow aside and become intrigued by bobsledding, where a lack of funding and access to the right equipment impede their progress and threaten to derail their hopes. You've heard this before, right? Only this isn't the Disney movie that offered a somewhat-fictionalized version of the 1988 Jamaican team and its path to the Calgary Games. This is very real for a new generation of Jamaican sledders, a group that cringes at any "Cool Runnings" parallels and insist that not only are they serious about their sport - but that maybe, just maybe, they're good enough to surprise at the Vancouver Olympics. "People do not understand: This is my passion. This is our passion," said Hannukkah Wallace, the team's driver. "I really want to get an Olympic medal. It's all I've ever wanted. I really, really, really need it. And if they ask me about the movie, I tell them, the movie was a comedy, but our crashes our real." So against all odds, here they go again. Get ready, Vancouver: The Jamaicans are coming. "I think a lot of people might believe that it's sort of an amusement park ride to the Olympics," said Stephen Samuels, who represents the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation. "I don't know how to describe it to you, other than this. This is their life. They are serious athletes." Indeed, these guys run in some serious circles. For starters, at a recent commercial shoot for Puma, Wallace and pushman Marvin Dixon tried to get a certain old track buddy of theirs into the bobsled. No chance - Olympic track hero Usain Bolt turned them down flat. "We asked him," said Dixon, who was a 400- and 800-meter runner in Jamaica before becoming a sledder. "He just said, 'Cold. No."' That's an answer - "no" - the Jamaican team hears a lot, particularly when asking for financial support. Here's something that many tourists might not realize about Jamaica: There's the resorts, which are typically pristine, and the cities, which are typically anything but. Consider: Devon Harris, a member of the original Jamaican bobsled team and now a motivational speaker based in New York, hailed from a part of Jamaica known as "Waterhouse" because it was always on fire. The country is not a wealthy one, and in this economic downturn, even the tourist business is suffering greatly. Funding, therefore, was particularly tough to come by. When Wallace and Dixon arrived in the United States to begin winter training, they came with no sled, and needed to rent equipment. What they got was substandard. "The equipment, it was killing us," Wallace said. "We really needed something." Enter Todd Hays. A longtime driver for the United States, Hays has some extra sleds, and didn't mind sharing some of the equipment he won't be using with the Jamaicans. So for the past week or so, Wallace has been on the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, British Columbia with a sled that's superior to the one he was driving. "From what I understand, he's certainly very talented," said Hays, who's bidding for another Olympic spot himself. That's a sentiment plenty of drivers around the world share when assessing Wallace, who might be known for something other than his name. Here's the story: His mother was pregnant with him and working at a jewelry store at the airport in Kingston. A tourist suggested "Hanukkah" for her soon-to-be-born son's name. Somehow, the extra "n" got into the mix, for reasons that Wallace never understood. "I'm one of a kind," said Wallace, who plans to return to his track roots, resuming training in the 100- and 200-meter dash programs in Jamaica next summer. "I went to the driving school, and they said I'm a natural. So I guess I'm crazy like that." He was a stellar sprinter and soccer player before finding bobsled in 2006, and has a handful of top-15 finishers on the America's Cup circuit, essentially the junior varsity level of the bobsled world. Is he a medal contender for Vancouver? Realistically, no. But there is hope: The Jamaicans showed steady progress in the years following Calgary, and Lascelles Brown, who pushed sleds for Jamaica from 1999 until 2004, helped Canada win a silver medal in two-man bobsledding at the 2006 Turin Olympics. "I think it's time for us to be taken seriously," Wallace said. "We were racing in Germany in January, and everywhere we went, people looked at us. 'Oh, there's the Jamaicans.' I want to be known for our passion now."