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Islanders in Utah dream of bobsleds

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When the bobsleds make their runs during the 2002 Olympics, Utah's Pacific Island community wants to go along for the ride.

And their high hopes are anything but unrealistic. In fact, one of Utah's Samoans will definitely be going to Innsbruck, Austria, to train in early November. The hard work could translate into a spot in Olympic competition."The kid who is going to be doing this is probably sitting in a school somewhere right now and has no idea," said Bob Bills, who is in charge of the youth sport programs for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Friday and Saturday, a make-shift bobsled track in the Salt Palace Convention Center was to be a hub of activity as a trial site for bobsled teams that will train and compete in hopes of eventually making the U.S. Bobsled Team. And while the U.S. team will have first pick from the trials, plans are in the works to form Samoan and Tongan teams from Utah's Pacific Islanders as well.

Bobsledding isn't something that 15-year-old Tiu Tuuao had thought much about. But he planned to compete Friday "because it's something to do with Samoa, and I am proud to be Samoan. If I do good, it could be a chance to put Samoa on the map."

It's also a chance to put Tiu on the map, said his father, Pemani Tuuao. "He's very athletic. And this is something not just for the community but for the kids. I'm really excited and told him to go for it."

Although the Olympics don't yet have a women's bobsled event, women turned out to form a team. They are hoping to have a women's event added in time for the 2002 Games. And the Pacific Island women want to be part of that.

Ashley Filimoeatu, a 14-year-old Tongan, is trying out with five friends. "It just seems like a fun thing to do," said the girl, who is athletic and likes to play basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer.

While the trial is open to all athletes willing to push the 400-plus-pound sled down the track "really fast," the excitement is especially high among the Pacific Islanders. They believe they were literally built for this sport and will demonstrate how fast and how far they can jump, too.

The dream started when Bills and a U.S. bobsled official spoke about the team at a governor's forum. They said they were looking for people who are "big, strong and fast runners."

"You have just described the Polynesian community," said Mili Peters of the Polynesian Association.

So the dream took root among Pacific Islanders. And Thursday, Taylor Boyd, a wealthy Texan who steers a bobsled, announced that he was going to compete for American Samoa. He just needs to find his partner, who will push the bobsled. For that, he's picking from among Utah's American Samoans.

Pacific Islander involvement doesn't end there.

Also on Thursday, Orem businessman Mote Mouga was in Tonga, asking the island's princess for permission to form a Tongan bobsled federation and establish their own team from Utah's Tongan community to compete under Tonga's flag. That's how the American Samoan team was created.

If enough Pacific Islanders qualify during the trials, they may even ask Fiji and Tahiti to let them form teams, said Peters. Olympic fever has hit the community in a big way.

Tongans are going all out for the competition. With American Samoans, the community said it will be more selective. After they find the adult male Samoan for Boyd's team, they also hope to form Western Samoan bobsled teams, both male and female. They'll do the same for the youth teams.

In all, said Bills, the tryouts are for recruiting "kids of all races, shapes, sizes, colors and creeds to try to make the U.S. Bobsled Team, men and women, junior bobsled team, and the one for American Samoa." It could add up to as many as 24 people selected from the Salt Palace trials to form the various teams.

The junior teams, made up of 15- to 17-year-olds, will be training and mastering techniques to prepare to move up to international competition once they're 18. Today's juniors will be old enough by the time the Olympics roll around.

"I really believe there will be a Utahn on the U.S. bobsled team," said Patrick Brown, U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation program director and coach. "It will happen."