Winston Watts

Cool Runnings: Could Jamaican bobsled team return for Sochi Olympics?

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Get on up, it might be bobsled time for Jamaica again, 25 years after its debut at the 1988 Olympics that inspired the film, “Cool Runnings.”

The story of Jamaican bobsled continued through the Olympics in 1992, 1994 (where it beat both U.S. sleds), 1998 and 2002 (where it posted the fastest start time in the two-man). It missed the last two Games due to competitive and financial issues, problems that could again derail one of the potential feel-good stories six months out from the Sochi opening ceremony.

Still, the island nation of Usain Bolt, Bob Marley and Red Stripe clings to its winter sport. So much so that a member of the 1994, 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams is making a comeback — at age 46. Winston Watts came out of retirement in 2010, from the the oil fields of Wyoming, to bring Jamaican bobsled back to the Olympics.

“When you give up something you really do like, you cannot see it go away from you,” said Watts, in a thick accent, of leaving the sport after the missing the 2006 Olympics. “I came here out of retirement and decided, look, I’m very hungry. A hungry man is an angry man. And that is me. I am very angry because I want it.”

Watts, a former high school track and field athlete who is eight years younger than the oldest bobsledder in Olympic history, is in position to qualify a Jamaican two-man bobsled team for the 2014 Olympics, but it’s very precarious.

Here’s a simplified version of how Olympic qualification works for men’s bobsled:

The international bobsled federation (FIBT) uses a rankings system from results over various circuits across Europe and North America. A pilot must be ranked in the top 50 as of Jan. 19 to go to Sochi, but not all of the top 50 go. The field is limited to a maximum of 30 sleds.

The top three nations receive three sleds in the Olympics. The next six nations receive two sleds (assuming there are six more nations which have two pilots ranked in the top 50 — there currently are five). The field is rounded out by nations that receive one sled.

If the Olympic qualifiers were chosen today, Watts would make the two-man as No. 30 out of 30 but not the four-man. He is ranked No. 47 in the two-man and No. 60 in the four-man. It’s tougher for Watts in the four-man given how hard it is to get his Jamaican teammates to meet him for competitions across North America. (Watts lives in the rural community of Evanston, Wyo., while his push athletes fly in from Jamaica.)

So let’s focus on the two-man.

Through the FIBT selection procedures, Canada, Germany and the U.S. would get three sleds each. Latvia, Russia, Switzerland, Great Britain and the Netherlands would receive two sleds each. The nations with one sled would be (with ranking in parentheses) — Italy (11), Czech Republic (24), France (25), Japan (27), Australia (28), Poland (30), Austria (32), South Korea (35), Liechtenstein (36), Monaco (37) and Jamaica (47).

This assumes all of the pilots have met other criteria, such as completing five races over three tracks in the two years before Sochi. Watts has done two tracks (Calgary and Lake Placid) and plans on checking off the third and final one in nearby Park City, Utah, this fall.

If Watts can keep his spot in the top 50 by the January deadline, he stands a great chance of qualifying based on his ranking. But that’s not the only issue.

“Last season we didn’t have any funding whatsoever,” Watts said. “I had to use my own funding to reach where we’re at right now.”

Watts lives not in Jamaica, but in Evanston, a southwest Wyoming city of 12,000 whose motto is Fresh Air, Freedom, and Fun (serial comma included). The town has supported Jamaican bobsled for more than a decade. It’s an hour drive on Interstate 80 to Salt Lake City or Park City.

Specifically, Union Wireless, Perry Brothers Trucking, Inc., and T Bar S Body Shop, all Evanston businesses, are currently aiding Watts financially. (Update: as is ClearBra, Inc., in Salt Lake City) The city’s twice-a-week newspaper, the Uinta County Herald, profiled Watts last week.

A sign on Main Street dubs Evanston the headquarters of Jamaican bobsled. An Evanston attorney named Paul Skog led the charge in the late 1990s. Businesses came through, offering free motel rooms, a truck to get to and from Park City and general small-town hospitality.

Watts moved there eight years ago. A U.S. Olympic bobsledder, the retired Randy Jones, lended his expertise as well. Jones helped with logistics and finding sleds.

“It’s 100 percent a financial issue right now,” Jones, a 1994, 1998 and 2002 Olympian and silver medalist, said in a phone interview from his home in Georgia. “He doesn’t have enough. The Jamaican team doesn’t have enough finances to a) procure a good sled … and b) send him to the different events he needs to go to.”

Watts doesn’t have a sponsor on the same scale as the top European or North American countries. Nothing big enough to merit slapping a company’s sticker on the nose of his sled. Nothing big enough to consider trying to enter World Cup events in Europe.

“We’re getting some donations — $1,000 here, $2,000 there,” Skog said. “What would be really nice is if we can get one major sponsor, and then he could go racing through the season.”

There is a Jamaican bobsled federation, but it, too, is lacking sponsorship support, Watts said. The federation’s general secretary, Nelson “Chris” Stokes, was a member of that 1988 Jamaican bobsled team that inspired “Cool Runnings.”

“The original Jamaica bobsled story could not happen today,” said Stokes, whose team 25 years ago was founded by American businessmen who spent six figures of their own money preparing the team for the Calgary Games. “In 1988, when we went to the Olympics, we started in October and the Olympics were in February. That’s plain impossible now.”

Watts planned on flying to Kingston in mid-August to seek aid, even meet with the prime minister. He hopes. Watts’ personality can go a long way to making connections.

He lives with his mother, who cooks a lot of rice and beans for him, two sons and his girlfriend.

“He looks like a man of 30,” Skog said. “He portrays what people think of Jamaican bobsledders. He’s always happy, always in a good mood. He’s just jovial.”

Strong, too.

“He’s a mutant,” Stokes said.

Judge for yourself. Here’s Watts working out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“When Winston Watts says he’s going to do something,” Skog said, “you can pretty much bank on it.”

To reach Watts or Jamaican Bobsled, you can visit Jamaicanbobsled.com.

One winter Olympian on Forbes’ highest-paid female athletes list

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan judge heard from two Olympic gymnasts during a third day of gripping statements from young women who were sexually abused by a sports doctor.

A prosecutor read a statement from McKayla Maroney, who won gold and silver medals at the 2012 Olympics. She said Larry Nassar “left scars on (her) psyche that may never go away.”

Nassar could be sentenced Friday.

He admitted molesting gymnasts with his hands while working at Michigan State University and at a Lansing-area club. He also was team doctor at USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been hearing from victims since Tuesday. Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, spoke Thursday.

The judge said Nassar wrote a letter complaining about the hearing, calling it “a media circus.”

She dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

In her Captain America suit, Lindsey Vonn finally ready to attack

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CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — The Olympic downhill is little more than a month away, and Lindsey Vonn is finally ready to start attacking at 100 percent again.

Forget that unusual image of the 78-time World Cup winner skiing cautiously amid difficult weather conditions in Austria last weekend.

Back on one of her favorite courses — she holds a record 11 wins in Cortina — Vonn is not planning to hold anything back entering a set of three speed races this weekend: downhills Friday and Saturday and then a super-G on Sunday (full broadcast schedule).

“This snow is perfect. This hill is perfect. I have a lot of confidence here,” Vonn said Thursday after dominating downhill training for the second consecutive day.

“It’s a place where I can definitely push myself and ski more like my 100 percent self. I don’t need to be careful. I don’t need to worry about the risks. I’m just skiing like normal and I’m back to normal. This is how I ski when I am skiing well. It’s not like I’m not skiing well.”

In both training runs, Vonn’s advantage was nearly a full second — an eternity in ski racing.

It was a vast improvement from the ninth and 27th places that Vonn recorded in Bad Kleinkirchheim in a super-G and downhill, respectively, last weekend.

“Everything is good. I love racing here, and it’s always fun for me to be here. It’s beautiful. It’s hard not to be happy,” said Vonn, who is wearing a Captain America themed racing suit this weekend with a big white star on her chest.

Aiming to save her best for the Feb. 21 downhill in PyeongChang, Vonn has had only one win this season — a super-G in Val d’Isere, France, more than a month ago.

She had a difficult start to the season with two crashes in Lake Louise, Alberta, then jarred her back in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A day after her win in Val d’Isere, Vonn sat out another super-G because she didn’t feel comfortable with the conditions. Then she took four weeks off before returning in Bad Klein.

The two training runs in Cortina have shown that Vonn is still capable of taking risks when she wants to.

“My whole career I’ve never had a problem going to 100 percent,” Vonn said. “It’s being smart and controlling myself that has always been a problem. I feel like I’ve finally learned my lesson, and I’ve been taking it easy to make sure that I can make it to the Olympics. Flipping the switch is something that comes very naturally to me.”

But how will she cope if the conditions in PyeongChang are difficult?

“That’s what I’m working on with my equipment right now. I’ve been testing some things and trying to get a setup that I’m more comfortable with,” Vonn said. “I definitely was not comfortable and not comfortable risking anything. So I think that once I find a setup that’s a little bit better for icier conditions — just in case — then I’ll be ready for any condition in PyeongChang.”

With the Olympics in mind, Vonn set aside a pair of skis that she tested on icy conditions in PyeongChang last season.

“I feel like I need a little bit more testing, but in general I’m ready for any condition,” she said.

With the women’s technical events being held before the speed races in PyeongChang — the opposite from recent Olympics, Vonn will be able to ease her way into the Games.

She won’t race slalom but may enter the giant slalom to get a taste of the competition before going for gold in the super-G, downhill and super combined.

“Three, maybe four (events),” Vonn said. “It just depends on how I feel.”

Also this weekend, overall World Cup leader Mikaela Shiffrin is entering the Cortina downhill for the first time, having finished fourth in the super-G on her first visit to Cortina last season.

Showing rapid improvement, Shiffrin moved up from 13th in the opening training run to fifth Thursday.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable, and from here on out it’s just about the timing and hitting my switches in the right spot,” said Shiffrin, who claimed the first downhill victory of her career in Lake Louise in November.

Like Vonn, Shiffrin is using this weekend as a dry run for the Olympics.

“It’s important to be able to learn a track really well,” Shiffrin said. “I haven’t skied the Olympic track as well. So it’s sort of the same kind of thing where I’m trying to figure it out — inspect it, visualize it, ski it the way that I want to. And if I can execute that then I’ll feel more comfortable doing the speed at the Olympics.”

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