Winston Watts

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

5 Comments

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

U.S. Olympic marathon trials men’s preview, contenders

Galen Rupp
AP
Leave a comment

The U.S. Olympic men’s marathon trials picture shook in the last month with the retirement of fastest-ever American marathoner Ryan Hall, the withdrawal of four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and the addition of Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp.

What’s left is one man from the three-man 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team — Meb Keflezighi — who turns 41 on May 5 and looks to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time (an Olympic medalist in the women’s race is attempting the same feat).

Keflezighi, the defending trials champion, appears the safest pick to finish in the top three to make the Rio Olympic team, but several others, such as Rupp, could surprise in Los Angeles on Saturday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra).

The top contenders:

Meb Keflezighi
Age: 40
PR: 2:08:37 (Boston 2014)
2014 Boston Marathon champion
2012 Olympics — fourth place
2009 New York City Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — silver medal
2000 Olympics — 12th place (10,000m)

In 2012, Keflezighi became the oldest U.S. Olympic marathon trials winner. This year, he can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Keflezighi’s only 26.2-mile hiccup in the last four years came in 2013, when he placed 23rd at the New York City Marathon (fifth among Americans). But Keflezighi silenced the doubters five months later in Boston, becoming the first American man to win the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race since 1983.

He followed that up with a fourth at the 2014 NYC Marathon (top American), eighth at the 2015 Boston Marathon (No. 2 American) and seventh at the 2015 NYC Marathon (top American).

Dathan Ritzenhein
Age: 33
PR: 2:07:47 (Chicago 2012)
2012 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — ninth place
2004 Olympics — DNF (10,000m)

Ritzenhein has the fastest personal best in the field and ranked No. 2 among all Americans for 2015 (2:11:20 in Boston). For all his talent, Ritzenhein endured health problems throughout his career. In November, hip bursitis reportedly slowed him for about one month.

He last raced Oct. 4 and last raced a marathon April 20 (his last marathon before that was Oct. 13, 2013).

At the 2012 trials, Ritzenhein was in the lead pack of four from miles two through 19 until he fell off the pace and watched Keflezighi, Hall and Abdirahman pull away to secure Olympic berths. Ritzenhein nearly caught Abdirahman at the end, making up 17 seconds in the last 1.2 miles but coming up eight seconds short in Houston.

“Maybe I’m not made for the marathon,” Ritzenhein said that day, hanging his head while answering reporters’ questions.

Ritzenhein later made the 2012 Olympic team in the 10,000m and, two months after the London Games, ran that 2:07:47 in Chicago to become the third-fastest U.S. marathoner of all time. That’s 50 seconds faster than any other U.S. man since 2011.

Galen Rupp
Age: 29
PR: None
2012 Olympics — silver medal (10,000m)
2012 Olympics — seventh place (5000m)
2008 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)

Rupp makes his much-anticipated marathon debut. The only U.S. man or woman to qualify for the Olympic marathon at trials in his or her 26.2-mile debut was George Young in 1968, the first year trials were held.

The lack of experience (Rupp’s longest race was a half marathon, which he’s done once in the last four and a half years) makes him a bit of a wild card. But there’s no doubting his talent. Rupp, one of the world’s best at 10,000m, is coached by three-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, and may prove the strongest runner in the field.

Rupp was a late qualifier for the trials by posting a half marathon qualifying time of 1:01:20 on Dec. 13 in Portland, Ore., against a field that included a man dressed as an elf and another in the bunny suit from “A Christmas Story.” That time ranked second among U.S. men for 13.1 miles last year.

Rupp’s fastest half marathon, 1:00:30 from 2011, ranks second in the field behind Ritzenhein.

If Rupp finishes in the top three to make the Olympic team, he could still drop out to focus on the 10,000m and/or 5000m on the track, should he make the team in those events at the July 1-10 trials in Eugene, Ore. In that case, the fourth-place finisher on Saturday would be elevated onto the U.S. Olympic team.

Luke Puskedra
Age: 25
PR: 2:10:24 (Chicago 2015)

The former University of Oregon distance runner surprised at the Chicago Marathon by running the fastest time by an American for all of 2015. It was his third marathon. His previous two were 2014 NYC (2:28:54) and the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. (2:15:27)

The label “fastest American in 2015” means a little less when it’s combined with the fact no American broke 2:10 in the marathon in a calendar year for the first time since 2003.

Still, Puskedra is so young that he may not be near his peak. The top four at the 2012 Olympic trials all went sub-2:10, so Puskedra may need another personal best to make his first Olympic team. Then again, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein are the only men in the field who have broken 2:10, so he might not need it.

Elkanah Kibet
Age: 32
PR: 2:11:31

A Kenya native, Kibet went to Auburn, enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. He was deployed in Kuwait and Iraq from June 2014 to March 2015 and then made his marathon debut in Chicago on Oct. 11.

His 2:11:31 ranked No. 3 among U.S. men last year behind Puskedra and Ritzenhein.

Diego Estrada
Age: 26
PR: None

Estrada is the reigning U.S. champion in the half marathon, his 1:00:51 being the fastest by an American since Rupp in 2011. There’s little else to go on with Estrada, who like Rupp is making his 26.2-mile debut.

He also finished eighth in the 10,000m and 15th in the 5000m at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Championships. In 2012, he placed 21st in the Olympic 10,000m for Mexico.

Sam Chelanga
Age: 30
PR: None

Chelanga is a native Kenyan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in August. He owns a half-marathon personal best of 1:01:04 from 2013 and has the second-fastest 10,000m personal best in the field behind Rupp.

MORE: Rio Olympics six months out: Key trials, qualifying dates

U.S. Olympic marathon trials women’s preview, contenders

Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Desi Linden
AP
Leave a comment

In a contrast from the men’s race, the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials outlook is not all that different from four years ago.

In 2012, Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden (then Davila) entered as favorites to make the three-woman Olympic team and delivered a one-two finish in Houston.

Kara Goucher was certainly in the mix for an Olympic place as well, arguably a favorite to join Flanagan and Linden in the top three, and she did just that, taking third.

The younger Amy Cragg (then Hastings) and the older Deena Kastor (American record holder set in 2006) just missed, placing fourth and sixth, respectively.

Going into Saturday’s trials (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1-4 p.m. ET), the four U.S. women who have clocked sub-2:28 since Jan. 1, 2014:

  1. Shalane Flanagan — 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
  2. Desi Linden — 2:23:54 (Boston 2014)
  3. Amy Cragg — 2:27:03 (Chicago 2014)
  4. Deena Kastor — 2:27:47 (Chicago 2015)

The biggest question again is who is favored to finish third. Six top contenders, including five Olympians, are outlined below:

Shalane Flanagan
Age: 34
PR: 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
2014 Berlin Marathon — third place
2012 Olympics — 10th place
2012 Olympic marathon trials champion
2010 NYC Marathon — second place
2008 Olympics — bronze medal (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — 10th place (5000m)
2004 Olympics — first round (5000m)

Four years ago, Flanagan entered the trials with one marathon (a 2:28:40) under her belt (plus that decorated track career). She pulled away from Linden in the final two miles in Houston to win the trials by 17 seconds.

Now, Flanagan enters as the second-fastest U.S. woman ever, following a 2:22:02 with a 2:21:14, both in 2014. Linden is the only American within five minutes of those times in the last two years.

Her last marathon, Boston 2015, was not as fast — 2:27:47 — finishing as the second American behind Linden. Plus, she’s dealt with “a lot of hiccups” in training, specifically back and Achilles pain, according to Runner’s World.

Desi Linden
Age: 32
PR: 2:22:38 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — DNF
2011 Boston Marathon — second place

Linden was second at the 2012 trials but pulled out of her Olympic debut 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain that had affected her training, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

It took more than one year to return to her top form after the London injury. Linden made it, finishing as the No. 1 American in her last two marathons — Boston 2015 (over Flanagan and Cragg) and New York City 2014 (over Kastor and Goucher).

Kara Goucher
Age: 37
PR: 2:24:52 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — 11th place
2009 Boston Marathon — third place
2008 NYC Marathon — third place
2008 Olympics — 10th place (10,000m)
2007 World Championships — bronze medal (10,000m)
2004 Olympics — ninth place (5000m)

By qualifying times, Goucher enters the trials seeded No. 43 overall. The qualifying window was Aug. 1, 2013, through Jan. 17, 2016. Goucher’s only marathon in that stretch was a wall-smacking 2:37:03 at cold-and-windy New York City 2014, her slowest career marathon.

But in her previous two marathons before 2013 and 2014 injuries, she finished in 2:26:07 at the Olympics (16 seconds behind Flanagan) and 2:28:11 at Boston 2013 (63 seconds behind Flanagan).

After the London Games, Goucher changed coaches, training locations and sponsors and underwent knee surgery. Optimism finally returned in November and December, when she won half marathons in 1:11:13 and 1:11:10, her fastest since 2012.

“This is literally a last chance for me,” Goucher wrote on a Jan. 12 blog.

Amy Cragg
Age: 32
PR: 2:27:03 (Houston 2011, Chicago 2014)
2012 Olympics — 11th place (10,000m)

At the 2012 trials, Cragg (then Hastings) was part of the four-woman lead pack through 19 miles before fading and finishing 71 seconds behind third-place Goucher, just missing the Olympic team. Not bad for her second career marathon.

“I cried every day for a month,” Cragg said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Like Dathan Ritzenhein, she dusted herself off to make the Olympic team on the track in the 10,000m six months later.

Cragg failed to finish her 2015 marathon, in Boston, dropping out in the 22nd mile with leg cramps, her then-coach said, according to LetsRun.com. Unlike (her new training partner) Flanagan, Goucher and Linden, she has only one strong marathon finish since the 2012 trials (Chicago 2014),

Deena Kastor
Age: 42
PR: 2:19:36 (London 2006)
2008 Olympics — DNF
2008 Olympic marathon trials champion
2006 London Marathon champion
2005 Chicago Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — bronze medal
2000 Olympics — first round (10,000m)

The American record holder and last woman to earn an Olympic marathon medal was thought to be done contending in elite marathons. Until Oct. 11, when Kastor clocked 2:27:47 in Chicago.

That made Kastor the second-fastest U.S. woman for the year (behind Linden). It was her first time breaking 2:30 in six years and her fastest time since her American record in 2006.

If Kastor can follow that up with a top three in Los Angeles (one day before her 43rd birthday), she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Misiker Demissie
Age: 29
PR: 2:25:45 (Ottawa 2013)

The former Ethiopian runner has the best PR of the remaining field, though it came three years ago. Her qualifying marathon was a 2:29:03 in Shanghai in 2014. She also clocked an uninspiring 1:13:38 half marathon on Jan. 17.

“She’s more of a long shot than what her PRs are,” Scott Simmons, a coach in Demissie’s training group, said, according to Runner’s World.

MORE: Boston Marathon film to go beyond 2013 attacks