Justin Olsen, part of the 2010 U.S. Olympic champion four-man bobsled team that ended a 62-year drought, became on Wednesday the last member of that quartet to end his competitive career.
“It seems an impossible task to encapsulate the memories, relationships, accomplishments, and struggles that have transpired over the past 13 years,” the 33-year-old Olsen wrote, according to U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton. “My desire to be part of a team and continue to compete at an extremely high level was all I needed to say yes to bobsled. Everything that followed was a bonus.”
Olsen wrote that he was sidelined by injury over the past year. He last raced internationally in February 2019.
Minutes after the retirement announcement, U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton announced Olsen was hired as a start coach for the program.
“I spent some time coaching last season since I couldn’t be in a sled, and I found out that I had a blast doing it,” he said in a press release. “I realized that my ability to have an impact on people was much greater as a coach than as an athlete. It’s the right time to make this transition.”
In 2010, Olsen was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic bobsled team in Vancouver. The Texan had played football until 2006, including tight end at Air Force. He took up bobsled in 2007 after two football-related knee surgeries. Olsen’s mom, Kim, encouraged him after hearing about tryouts on the radio.
After one season, he earned a place on the top U.S. four-man sled driven by Steven Holcomb. In 2009, Olsen, along with Holcomb, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz, won the U.S.’ first four-man world title since 1959.
The following year, they won the U.S.’ first Olympic men’s bobsled title since 1948, riding the Night Train.
“What an incredible ride it was,” Olsen wrote in his retirement announcement. “Thank you for taking a chance on a young 21 year old.”
Olsen finished 10th in the U.S. No. 2 bobsled in 2014. Then he switched to driving and placed 14th and 20th in 2018, competing 13 days after an emergency appendectomy.
Olsen joined the National Guard after the Vancouver Games and, as of the PyeongChang Olympics, was a sergeant in the World Class Athlete Program.
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 Nehemiah, Lauryn 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.”
When pairs’ figure skater Tai Babilonia debuted at the Olympics in 1976, the fact that her presence in Innsbruck, Austria, was historic did not enter her 16-year-old mind.
None of the previous 500-plus U.S. Winter Olympians dating to 1924 were Black. Babilonia is multiracial. Her mom is Black. Her dad was half Filipino and half Hopi.
“The whole family, we got the stares,” said Babilonia, noting people didn’t believe she was related to her older brother, who was a few shades darker. “At some point you kind of have to laugh it off.”
Babilonia, introduced to skating and given her first name by her godfather, Mako Nakashima, never felt uncomfortable in the predominantly white sport. Part of the reason: Mabel Fairbanks, her childhood skating teacher in Culver City, Calif.
Fairbanks was a trailblazer. In the 1930s, she wasn’t allowed to join a figure skating club because she was Black, and thus barred from competition. Yet Fairbanks still ended up in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, having skated in international shows and coached future Olympic and world champions.
“She always told me and her other students of color, when you get out there to perform and compete, it doesn’t matter what color you are, you still have to go out and give it your best,” Babilonia said in a recent interview. “Pearls of wisdom I use to this day.”
Fairbanks first matched Babilonia, then 8 years old, and Randy Gardner, then 10, as a pairs’ team for a small skating show at their club. Babilonia had never held a boy’s hand. She was bribed with stickers and Barbie dolls. She and Gardner skated together over six different decades.
In Culver City, she felt like part of a family. Fairbanks’ group was diverse.
“Black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed,” Babilonia said. “It wasn’t until we would go to competitions, like the nationals, where it’s like, oh, OK, it’s predominantly white. But at 13 years old, it’s like, who cares? I’m 13.”
Babilonia was 13 when she and Gardner won the U.S. junior pairs’ title. They later took five straight senior national titles and the 1979 World title, sandwiched between two Olympic appearances. No U.S. pair has won a world title since.
When Babilonia and Gardner competed at their first Olympics in 1976, the bulk of the figure skating attention went to Dorothy Hamill. When journalists did interview Babilonia, she told them her exact background.
“They turn around and give me a label: exotic,” she said. “I would see exotic a lot. Well I didn’t say exotic. I said Black, Filipino, Hopi Indian.”
What was said, what was written, it didn’t matter during her seven competitive seasons before turning professional.
“That’s out of my hands,” she said. “I’ve got to go out and do the job. Randy and I had a job to do, and we did it from 1973 to 1980.”
Babilonia and Gardner, after surprising themselves by placing fifth in 1976, entered the 1980 Lake Placid Games as reigning world champions.
Dominant Russians Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev didn’t compete at the 1979 Worlds due to Rodnina’s pregnancy, but perhaps Babilonia and Gardner could challenge the Soviet reign (four straight golds dating to 1964) on home ice.
Gardner pulled a groin muscle training in Santa Monica 10 days before leaving for Lake Placid. He then aggravated it in practice the night after the Opening Ceremony. They tried a last resort minutes before the short program: a pain-killing shot of xylocaine. It left Gardner so numb that he couldn’t control his leg muscles and fell multiple times in warm-up.
They withdrew. Their Olympic careers were over.
“That Olympic incident had a very lasting impression on her and the what-if,” Gardner said. “She was always so kind and thoughtful about me. She would always say, ‘He had an injury. What could anybody do about it?’ I think that was so kind of her. She could have ditched me.”
As a touring professional in the 1980s, Babilonia found she was an inspiration to young girls. Fan mail poured in.
“I know some people have named their kids after her,” Gardner said.
Babilonia also plunged into alcoholism in her 20s. She tried to commit suicide on Sept. 14, 1988.
“I bought some sleeping pills and a bottle of booze,” she wrote in a 1989 People magazine cover story. “I cleaned my house and wrote a will leaving my cats to my parents, my car to my brother and my antique dolls to the L.A. Children’s Museum. I was calm and I was serious.”
She woke up the next morning. She started getting help.
Babilonia and Gardner remained skating partners — “soulmate,” Babilonia calls Gardner now. Gardner remembered appearing on the cover of Jet magazine with Babilonia, but that she didn’t care for the attention and didn’t want to identify as one race.
“I just don’t think Tai got the recognition she deserved, if she wanted it,” as a pioneer, he said. “I don’t really think she really cared that much about it, though, to be honest.”
Babilonia was asked if she considered herself a pioneer. She paused, then answered.
“In a multiracial way, yes,” she said. “I think I am the first multiracial Olympic figure skater with the Black, Filipino, Hopi Indian makeup. Is that a pioneer? I don’t know.”
She was followed by Black Winter Olympians in bobsled, luge, speed skating, hockey and, most notably in figure skating, 1988 bronze medalist Debi Thomas.
Babilonia points to her predecessors whom she calls legends, like Fairbanks and another Fairbanks student — Atoy Wilson, the first Black skater to win a U.S. title, at the novice level in 1966.
Babilonia is active with Diversify Ice, a non-profit providing opportunities for minorities in figure skating. She wants to see more Black skaters at the U.S. Championships and more people of color in leadership roles within the sport.