Jamaican Olympic Bobsledder Winston Watts: Rallying the World
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About This Episode
Winston Watts didn’t get his start in bobsledding because of “Cool Runnings”, like you might think. In fact, he was a dedicated, committed member of the Jamaican Military when his natural athletic ability stuck out to a friend looking one more member of the famed Jamaican bobsled team. Put up against a series of physical tests and challenges, Winston excelled at them all and, if he wanted it, the spot was his. But the difficult part wasn’t over just yet. He was plucked from his spot in the army and flown to the training center in Evanston, Wyoming where experienced not only his first winter weather, but his first actual bobsled track. “I asked to go home after the first week,” laughed Winston. A combination between being ill equipped to handle the climate and the relentless nausea because of the unfamiliar G-forces on the track made him miserable. Of his first run he remembers simultaneously wanting to be ejected, stop immediately, and throw up. At the bottom he was so discombobulated that he couldn’t even stand up or unclip his helmet. But he persisted, crediting his military training for the fortitude to forge ahead through immensely uncomfortable situations. Giving up was never an option in the army, so why would it be an option now?
This training also helped him cope with the fear of racing at over 90 miles per hour down a slick track of ice. Before racing he was shown footage of runs and crashed in an attempt to prepare him for what was to come. And the crashes did come. “One time I crashed from curve two all the way down the entire track to curve nineteen!” said Winston. The only strategy is to curl inside the sled and wait until it stops – easier said than done for the world’s largest bobsled pusher of 260 pounds. With time, his experience improved and he tempered the months in Wyoming with seasons of training in sunny Jamaican that focused on time in the gym and the push-start portion of the race.
Winston had the privilege of participating in four Olympics over his career and has experienced the fame and love that the world has for his team. Their positive, feel-good attitudes brighten the Olympic village and the track. They have become a staple race broadcast by every network, whether they make it to the finals or just a preliminary run. But the most difficult part of his career was watching the team continue to struggle for funding. Their athletic abilities were equal and above many other nations, but often they could not afford the same equipment, travel to the same races, train in the same locations, or even qualify for matches due to a lack of sponsors. They still hold track records around the world, but for three Olympics could not even afford to qualify. Winston came out of retirement in 2010 to help bolster the team and rally support to get Jamaica back to the 2012 Games in Sochi. Their absence was felt both from the nation and from the other Olympians, but the president of Jamaica was honest with him; there was no money to pull together a team. Winston began recruiting members on his own, personally funding their travel, clothing, equipment, and visas. Soon the team was fully assembled in Evanston, but still lacked a sled. He reached out to friends on the German team to consider the Jamaica as a part of their “Adopt a Team” program, but unfortunately their two sponsorship slots were filled. That didn’t stop the Germans from taking action, however, and soon a sled arrived as a gift to the Jamaicans, a gift worth more than $350,000. Over the next two years the team trained and traveled, picking away at the necessary races, points, and runs that would qualify them for the Olympics. It would be tight, however, and the week before the elected teams were announced they had nothing to do but wait. Winston, however, didn’t have to endure the anticipation as long as others, as he received a personal call from the office of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, telling him that the team would be welcome at the Sochi Olympics.
Winston was simultaneously elated and defeated. They may have qualified for the Games, but there was not a penny left to get them there. He had depleted all of his personal funds in the pursuit of qualification. Determined, he decided to look elsewhere. Tapping into contacts from year previously, Winston called a friend at NBC in New York City and shared his plight, asking that she consider airing their story in an attempt to draw attention to their GoFundMe page. Without hesitation the story was on the news that day. But not just in NYC. The story quickly gained momentum and spread across the country and soon, around the world. Donations began coming in from every continent, along with well wishes, encouragement, and support. The team needed $80,000 to make it to Russia and back, but within 48 hours over $120,000 had poured in. “It took the entire world to get the Jamaican bobsled team to the Sochi Olympics,” said Winston. Despite cancelled flights, lost luggage, a missing sled, and only two practice runs, the team represented Jamaica in the Sochi Games, but truly, they were racing for the world.
Winston acknowledges bobsled as giving him a chance to see the world, tap into a deeper strength inside of himself, overcome adversity, and relate to others in a new way. He advises younger athletes to train hard and not give in to easy ways of getting ahead like drugs and performance enhancers. “You will get caught and it’s not worth it,” he warns. At the end of the day he wants to be remembered for being a positive, loving individual who spread goodness throughout the world on behalf of his country. He worked hard to be a world class athlete, but also a kind individual. These days he mostly spends with his family, realizing that he will never get back the time he was away from them training and competing. But, of course, he has bigger, newer dreams that include acting, speaking, advertising, and films. He wants to continue to reach the world through a new, different medium, but we all know that it’s the same committed, sunny Winston who can rally the world through the most unusual of circumstances.