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Isle team gets push from Utahn

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The irony isn't lost on Quinn Wheeler. He grew up in Salt Lake City, but he had to go all the way to the Caribbean to get into Salt Lake City's Olympic Games.

He had to become the brakeman on the Virgin Islands bobsled team.

On Feb. 8, Wheeler, a former linebacker on the University of Utah football team, will march with the Virgin Islands team into Rice-Eccles Stadium ? the same stadium in which he played outside linebacker and special teams for the University of Utah football team.

"It's not halftime this time," he says. "It's opening ceremonies for the Olympics. Very cool."

I caught up with Wheeler between practices and a shift down at Cafe Wahoo, where he's a waiter and bartender. He was sitting in his apartment on Sapphire Beach. Tracking down Wheeler was easy ? his mom works at Cottonwood High ? but getting permission to talk to him is another story, so here's another story.

Wheeler said I had to talk first to a man named Jean ? the leader of the island's bobsled federation ? before he could talk. Team rules. I called Jean ? he wouldn't give me his last name ? and he said his team didn't want any press ? didn't seek it, didn't need it.

But they're getting it anyway.

Jean is a little thin-skinned because of recent treatment in the world press. Among other things, he believes there is a conspiracy to get small countries ? perceived as pretenders and novelty acts ? out of the Olympics. The novelty has worn off since the Jamaicans made their run in 1988 and ended up in the movies.

"They (the press) make fun of small countries," says Jean. "It doesn't do us any good. We're from a small country. They don't believe we have any part in the Winter Olympics. The purists don't like us."

Jean gave me his blessing to talk to Wheeler, but a couple of days later he sent word that he didn't want me to write a story until after the Olympics were under way.


Like other countries with limited talent pools and no snow, the Virgin Islands offers dual citizenships, which opens the way for Americans to join their Olympic teams. The Virgin Islands two- and four-man teams are made up entirely of Americans ? which makes them another target for purists and critics. This is not exactly a fresh idea. Greece once used bobsledders and lugers from Minnesota. Armenia used athletes from Massachusetts and Rhode Island to make up its first bobsled team in 1994.

One of the Americans on the Virgin Islands team is Wheeler. He quit his job with a Salt Lake architectural firm a few years ago and moved to St. Thomas, largely to hang out, but partly because he thought he might try to make the local bobsled team. The locals took one look at the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Wheeler and signed him.

"I push ? that's my biggest job ? and at the end I brake," he says simply. "I'm the last one to jump into the sled."

Like the famous Jamaica team that was made famous in "Cool Runnings," the Virgin Islands team has all the markings of an underdog. They don't pose much of a medal threat at the Olympics. They train on the beach or on roads because there isn't a track on the island. They travel to Canada or France to practice on a push track. When they competed in competitions in Germany and France earlier this year, they rented sleds to save money on shipping costs.

"That's what the little guys have to do," says Jean.

"We do the best with what we have," says Wheeler.

Wheeler isn't sure what he will do in the future ? "That's a little fuzzy right now," he says. When I told him it was snowing here, he said, "I can't complain. It's always sunny and 80 degrees here."

A guy could get used to this place.

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. E-mail drob@desnews.com .