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Jeff Gadley
Photos courtesy Jeff Jordan

Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers

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Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.

The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.

Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.

“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”

Hachigian looked at Gadley — undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds — and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.

“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”

No problem, Gadley said.

A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert — Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion — became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.

“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo NehemiahLauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.

“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”

Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.

“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.

Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.

“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.

“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”

Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.

“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”

The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).

“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.

“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”

Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.

“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.

“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”

Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.

The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.

“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”

It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.

Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife, Laurie.

Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.

“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”

MORE: Elana Meyers Taylor’s claims of racism in bobsled being investigated

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Elana Meyers Taylor’s claims of racism in bobsled being investigated

Elana Meyers Taylor
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Bobsled’s international federation is investigating triple Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor‘s claims of racism in the sport.

Meyers Taylor, a medalist for the U.S. at the last three Winter Olympics, wrote in a first-person TeamUSA.org story that a coach from another country “was recorded saying several racist statements” and that her name “was drug through the mud.”

“The basic premise was that there were no good black drivers and that black athletes needed to stay in the back of the sled as they simply lacked the mental capacity to drive,” wrote Meyers Taylor, a brakewoman at her first Olympics and a driver at the last two. “Furthermore, the coach felt the need to specifically bring up my name several times, and this after I had won an Olympic medal and two world championships as a pilot, and even earned a spot on the US Men’s team as a 4-man pilot.”

The coach no longer works for that federation and, Meyers Taylor believes, hasn’t been rehired elsewhere in the sport. She did not name the coach or the federation. She stood by her statements in a Tuesday phone interview.

Meyers Taylor also wrote that a manufacturer of one of the fastest sleds on tour “refuses to sell to black pilots” and has been quoted saying, “If I wanted to see a monkey drive a sled, I’d go to the zoo.”

“It doesn’t matter how fast he’s able to make a sled, I’d give up a gold medal before driving a sled made by him,” Meyers Taylor wrote. “And yet there currently sits one of these sleds in the Team USA garage, serving as a constant reminder to me where people who look like me stand in this sport.”

A USA Bobsled and Skeleton (USABS) spokesperson confirmed the sled is in a Team USA garage and owned by an athlete, not the federation.

“We spoke with Elana about the situation, and she does not recommend that we remove the sled from the garage,” the spokesperson said. “The athlete who owns the sled was not aware of the alleged situation with the manufacturer, and its presence does not have ill intentions.

“I also want to reiterate that USABS condemns all forms of racism and discrimination, and we take this very seriously.”

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) said it made immediate contact with Meyers Taylor and created a task force to investigate.

Meyers Taylor confirmed that the U.S. and international bobsled federations communicated with her. She is satisfied that both are taking her concerns seriously, noting the task force is a great first step. She is pushing the IBSF to create programs that allow minority athletes opportunities for success without obstacles.

“The biggest thing is to really look at the sport of bobsled, and all sports, and try and analyze where is racism and where it can be improved to prevent people with racist ideas and racial biases from having as much power as they do,” she said. “Racism occurs to all different types of people. Sport isn’t immune.”

Meyers Taylor, who sat out last season due to pregnancy, plans to compete next season, bringing 4-month-old son Nico with her on tour.

MORE: U.S. Olympic bobsledder dies at 43

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Jamaican bobsledders want to return to the Olympics, so they’re pushing a Mini Cooper

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The Jamaican bobsled team’s push for the next Winter Olympics took a detour to the roads of Great Britain.

Numerous British media outlets reported in the last week on Shanwayne Stephens and Nimroy Turgott, who have been pushing cars, including a Mini Cooper, in Peterborough.

“We had to come up with our own ways of replicating the sort of pushing we need to do [in bobsledding amid the coronavirus pandemic],” Stephens, a reported British resident since age 11, said, according to Reuters. “So that’s why we thought: why not go out and push the car?

“We do get some funny looks. We’ve had people run over, thinking the car’s broken down, trying to help us bump-start the car. When we tell them we’re the Jamaica bobsleigh team, the direction is totally different, and they’re very excited.”

The Jamaican bobsled team rose to fame with its Olympic debut at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, inspiring the 1993 Disney film, “Cool Runnings.” At least one Jamaican men’s sled competed in every Olympics from 1988 through 2002, then again in 2014, with a best finish of 14th.

A Jamaican women’s sled debuted at the Olympics in 2018, driven by 2014 U.S. Olympian Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian. A Jamaican men’s sled just missed qualifying for PyeongChang by one spot in world rankings.

Stephens, a driver, is 51st and 56th in the current world rankings for the four-person and two-man events, respectively.

He competed in lower-level international races last season with a best finish of sixth in a four-person race that had seven sleds. One of Stephens’ push athletes was Carrie Russell, a 2018 Olympian in the two-woman event and former sprinter who won a world title in the 4x100m in 2013.

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