Sam Clayton Jamaica Bobsled
Ron Fanfair

Sam Clayton, Jamaica’s first bobsled driver, was ‘a pioneer of pioneers’

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The first time a Jamaican bobsled went down an icy track, Sam Clayton was the driver.

“Sammy never, to be honest, showed any nerves,” said Devon Harris, the brakeman in that two-man sled in Calgary in late 1987. “None of the other guys, as far as I can remember, admitted that they were scared. But they had to be. I was scared to death.”

Harris said they started the run halfway down the track and were nudged off with the slightest of pushes. He estimated they didn’t eclipse 30 miles per hour. Sleds today go three times that fast.

“But it feels like you’re screaming down the track,” Harris continued. “We did three runs that night, and I remember on my third run, I was in the back of the sled, screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Go Sammy Go!'”

Clayton, 58, recently died after a coronavirus bout, according to the International Bobsled Federation. In obituaries, Clayton has been deemed part of the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.

The story is a little more complicated than that.

Clayton was not one of the four men who competed in the Olympics, inspiring the film “Cool Runnings.” He wasn’t in Calgary at all in February 1988, but he was instrumental in the roots of the program.

Clayton was “glue on the team” that was first chosen from September 1987 combine tryouts at Jamaica’s national track and field stadium in Kingston, said Chris Stokes, a 1988 Olympic team member.

“Without his sense of humor and calm spirit, I am not sure that the team would have been able to hold it together,” in those first months, Stokes said. “He was a pioneer among pioneers.”

Stokes, who joined the team in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, never met Clayton. But he soon learned about the engineer with the Jamaica Railway Corporation “whose beer belly would have recommended him for the sport in another era,” Stokes wrote in his 2002 book, “Cool Runnings and Beyond: The Story of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Team.”

“Certain stories about him have become somewhat legendary,” Stokes said last week.

Like when the team flew to Europe for the first time in late autumn 1987. In Igls, Austria, Clayton drove a bobsled down a track that ended like a scene out of the Disney film that came out six years later.

Clayton’s sled entered a kreisel, the German word for circle also given to bobsled track curves that approach 360 degrees. The sled got high in the corner and, by the time they exited the kreisel, had turned completely around.

“He completed the run by looking behind him over his shoulders for the remaining five turns,” Stokes wrote. “The feat was impressive but not what was required at the Olympic level.”

Jamaica Bobsled
Sam Clayton (left to right), Devon Harris and Dudley Stokes training in Kingston in September 1987. Courtesy: DevonHarris.com

Neither Clayton nor brakeman Harris was injured.

“The ego was bruised badly, though,” Harris said.

At the time, Clayton and Harris had already been in verbal conflict about their approach to training. It was their fourth crash together.

“I said, you know what, I’m not starting with this guy anymore, I’m done,” Harris remembered. “Send him back to Jamaica, but I’m not going back down the track with him.”

Jamaica’s two-man sled combinations were switched. Harris went with Dudley Stokes. Clayton joined Michael White. Harris said they competed once in December against lower-ranked teams from Europe.

Then they went back to North American for Christmas. When they returned for training in Lake Placid in January, Clayton couldn’t be found. He eventually arrived a week late, Harris said.

Clayton later left Lake Placid prematurely, before the Olympic team was named, and did not return to the program. Harris said this came after conversations within the team, including with American George Fitch, who first conceived the idea for a Jamaican bobsled team.

“So that’s why he wasn’t on the Olympic team,” Harris said. “I don’t want to make it sound like he voluntarily left, but I think he was asked to leave. We were beginning to lose confidence in him because of the lack of discipline we observed prior [to Lake Placid] and then him turning up for training a whole week late.”

Dudley Stokes did not remember specifics.

“Sammy knocked on my door, and he said to me, I am leaving,” he said. “I said why. He said I have to take care of some stuff. That was the last conversation we had. I never saw him again.”

Clayton was the lone original member of the Jamaican bobsled program, plucked from the trials in Kingston, who was not at the Calgary Olympics. Harris said he bumped into Clayton some time after the Games in Kingston. The conversation was cordial. They haven’t spoken since.

Harris later posted the photo atop this story (with Clayton in the center) on Facebook. Clayton’s sister commented on it, they chatted, and she told him that he was living in France.

In a New York Times obituary, Clayton was labeled “a musical jack-of-all-trades” who worked as a sound engineer with many foreign artists. One paragraph in the story was devoted to his brief bobsled career.

“The fact that he didn’t make the Olympic team, in my opinion, doesn’t diminish his contribution to the team,” Harris said. “He’s an important part of it. I definitely want to acknowledge people for their contributions. We started out as two two-man teams, and he was an essential part of that for sure.”

Dudley Stokes noted an unintended impact.

After Clayton departed in January 1988, the program was down a driver a month before the Winter Games. It hatched the idea to convert from a pair of two-man teams to create a single four-man bobsled group. That quartet had the famous crash at the Calgary Olympics. That quartet was the inspiration for “Cool Runnings.”

“If Sammy hadn’t left the program, Jamaica bobsled would probably have petered out after the ’88 Games,” Dudley Stokes said. “But the fact we took the four-man and we had the spectacular crash, and George Fitch leveraged that to get a movie for us, none of that happens without Sammy.”

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Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
AP
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

Shawn Johnson
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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

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