EVANSTON – A group of boys gathered behind the two athletes and looked at their watches.

One boy told another to time the runners.

Seconds later, the athletes took off, sprinting down the length of an indoor track at the Evanston Recreation Center. The boys followed as close as they could.

“Dude, they’re freaking fast,” Micah Cox, 12, said to his friends.

“We’re going to line up behind you and race again, OK?” said Clay Richards, 13.

The men nodded, crouched down and took off.

It’s not every day kids can race behind members of the Jamaican bobsled team, the one only a few generations removed from “Cool Runnings” and the one that just qualified for the Winter Olympics.

Except in Evanston.

The Jamaicans have been training at the recreation center here for weeks. They give workout tips to weightlifters who need help with form. They play pickup basketball with teens during breaks in their workouts. They sign autographs and take pictures.

It’s like the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics all over again, said Courtney Thompson, an Evanston weightlifter.

The Jamaican bobsled team isn’t new to Evanston. At least one member of the team has lived in the town, worked out at its recreation center and eaten in its restaurants since 1997.

Most of the media attention on the team focuses on its oddity – Jamaicans bobsledding – or on its driver coming out of retirement or on the sudden outpouring of money to send the members to Sochi.

But the tale of the 2014 Jamaican bobsled team can’t be told without also recounting the story of a little town in southwest Wyoming that wanted to put itself on the map.

*****

Most say it started with Paul Skog, an Evanston attorney who wears a multicolored Rastafarian hat and sometimes introduces himself as John Candy, who portrayed the fictional coach of the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1993 film “Cool Runnings.”

Skog had read about a bobsled track in Park City, Utah, that would open in 1997, five years before the Salt Lake Olympics. Park City is only 45 miles south of Evanston. If he could find a team to train in Wyoming, he could make Evanston the back door to the Olympics.

When looking for athletes to help bring fame to a small town, he wanted to start with the unlikeliest of bobsled teams.

So he called Jamaica.

“I will never forget," Skog said. "The question was, 'Do you folks still have a bobsled team?' Their answer was, 'Oh, yeah, we do, man. We have a Jamaican Bobsled Federation. Let me give you the president’s number. His name is Christian Stokes.’”

Through a series of phone calls and emails, Skog brought a few racers to Evanston and showed them what the town could offer: free lodging, workout facilities and a community that treated them like celebrities.

By 1999, he had nine Jamaicans training in Evanston, including a new driver named Winston Watts.

Bobsledding is one of the world’s most expensive sports. A two-man sled can cost $150,000, not to mention $80,000 runners. And North America only has four tracks: Park City; Lake Placid, N.Y.; Whistler, British Columbia, and Calgary, Alberta.

The Jamaicans had little money. Evanston could help pay for some of the basics.

“Someone on the U.S. bobsled team grumbled at me and asked why we were helping, and I said I grew up in the '50s and '60s and the concept was Americans help,” Skog said. “And they needed help.”

The Salt Lake Olympics came and went. The Jamaican bobsled team finished in the middle of the pack.

Its members dispersed, most going home to Jamaica. Evanston returned to normal.

A few years later, Skog got a call from Watts. If he moved to Evanston, could he find a job, he asked Skog.

Skog said sure, figuring the Jamaican wouldn’t show up.

Then Watts called from the Salt Lake City airport.

*****

Watts wanted the opportunity to earn enough money to buy a house and a car and take care of his family. An opportunity that exists in America and in cities like Evanston.

His team tried for the 2006 Olympics but missed qualifying by one place. At 39 years old, Watts retired from bobsledding.

He worked in the natural gas fields outside Evanston and became a senior operator. In 2011, the company downsized when gas prices fell. So Watts moved on. By that time, he’d earned American citizenship, bought a house and settled in the southwest Wyoming town.

For the next three years, he worked as a jack-of-all-trades in Evanston. He rebuilt and detailed cars and worked for a safety company. He sent his daughter to Western Wyoming Community College and helped Skog remodel a 1999 Mercedes Benz.

The Jamaicans tried forming another bobsled team for the 2010 Olympics but didn’t make it close to qualifying.

Other warm countries tried bobsledding: Costa Rica, Mexico, Israel. But none of them succeeded.

Watts stayed in shape through the years, maintaining his tree-trunk legs and barrel of a chest. He still worked out at the recreation center, still played basketball with the kids. Still dreamed of another chance.

“Other bobsled teams would say to me, 'Why are you making the Jamaican team die like that? ’You are in such good shape,’” Watts said.

In 2012, he decided that if no other Jamaicans would race, he would come out of retirement.

“We sat down and gave him our blessing,” said the team’s traveling manager, Wayne Thomas.

At 46, Watts would be one of the oldest Olympic bobsledders. He knew he would need to train harder, run more, watch videos.

The Jamaican team gathered in Evanston to train with Watts.

It’s the team’s cold home away from home, Thomas said. A place with training facilities and no distractions.

The recreation center let the team return for free. The Best Western gave them rooms. Acupuncturist Rhonda Lewis treated their muscles.

“It’s just a little town, and everyone supports each other in this town,” she said.

After a race at Lake Placid in mid-January, the team heard the news. They had qualified as the 30th of 30 teams. They would go to Sochi.

Bad news followed. Watts had been funding the team through his savings and donations from local companies like Union Wireless. He’d not only used all the money in his savings and checking accounts but also maxed out his credit cards.

The team had finally qualified for another Olympics after 12 years, but it wouldn’t be able to go.

“I lay down that night and couldn’t go to sleep,” Watts said. “I lay there with my eyes open until I came up with a plan.”

He would announce to the world that the Jamaicans were broke and see if anyone could help.

The next day, he called the Today Show and told the audience his sad story. The bobsledders raised $50,000 in half a day and $120,000 in two days. The team needed only $80,000 to compete.

“We had to do a press conference to tell people to stop,” Watts said.

They opened a fund for future Jamaican bobsled teams. Money kept coming in.

A new team is already forming with children of the first Jamaican bobsledders. Christian Stokes' daughter will go to driving school this year to form a female team.

“It’s like our dream come true,” Watts said. “This is our legacy, and we can pass it on.”

*****

It’s a legacy, Watts said, made possible in part by the people of Evanston.

At Kate’s, a bar in downtown Evanston, patrons know Watts and talk about the team.

“Most of the world will cheer for them because they are unique and likeable,” Jack Denson said.

“They might not be a favorite to win at the Olympics,” Kim Bateman said. “But they’re a fan favorite.

Bateman remembers when the team called Evanston home in the early 2000s. The town wanted the Jamaicans there. They were a team that needed help. They were also a novelty.

“For a little town like Evanston, having something like an Olympic team train here is big,” Sandy Denson said.

People don’t stop and stare as much this time as they did the first time around. It’s as if the town is used to seeing Jamaican bobsledders at the grocery store or on the street. Children still ask for autographs and take their pictures, Bateman said.

During the opening ceremony in Sochi, the town will see two of its own. Skog, the attorney who started it all, will walk into the arena with Watts and the others.

And when the team competes Feb. 16 and Feb. 17, the town will be watching, Bateman said.

“I feel like they’re our own,” she said. “We should call them the Wyoming bobsled team.”

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or christine.peterson@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.

 

(1) comment

jjolo

go Jamaica go wouldn't that be something if they actually did place anywhere

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