EVANSTON, Wyo. — The Jamaican bobsled team’s Olympic dreams are alive and well, and they will soon be heading to Sochi. It’s all because of a feel-good movie and a Wyoming town happy to have them.
Many people became Jamaica fans when the movie "Cool Runnings" came out in the early '90s.
"It's so overwhelming, and I can't wait to get there to Russia," said Winston Watts, the captain and pilot of Jamaica's two-man bobsled team.
Watts has been on the team since the movie debuted in 1993. He said he's used to all the smiles he gets when people find out he's on the Jamaican bobsled team.
"The movie opened such a wide environment for us, and we really do love the movie," Watts said.
Watts sees a lot of those smiles in Evanston, a place known more for farms, cowboys, and fireworks than bobsledders. Watts moved to Evanston full time after the 2002 Olympics, and the rest of the team also trains there.
"It is a small town, but the people are nice," said Marvin Dixon, the brakeman who will go to Sochi with Watts. "Once you're in bobsled, you have to like the weather. It's not like in Jamaica with the sunshine, you know?"
Many people wonder why the athletes choose to train in Evanston. It all started with Evanston attorney Paul Skog, who wanted to market Evanston's close proximity to Salt Lake City after it was awarded the 2002 Olympics.
"I just wanted people to become aware of the existence of Evanston, Wyoming, and I thought to myself, 'What's a good way to promote Evanston?'" Skog said. "And I saw the movie ‘Cool Runnings,' and I thought, ‘I wonder where they practice?'"
So in 1997, Skog looked up the Jamaican Bobsled Federation on the Internet and contacted them. He told them how close Evanston is to a bobsled track being built in Park City, and then he invited the team to check out the area.
"We had a great time, and then the team captain called me back and said, 'We'd like to make Evanston our training base,'" Skog said with a laugh, "and the rest is history. It's now been a 17-year journey."
The Jamaicans last raced in the Olympics during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. After the team didn't qualify for the Torino Olympics in 2006 or the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Watts decided to retire.
"All those years I was away from bobsledding, I've worked really hard here in Wyoming for a natural gas company," Watts said. "But about two years ago, a friend told me I should try to qualify Jamaica again."
Watts called the Jamaican Bobsled Federation to tell them he wanted to race in the Olympics again.
"You know the first word out of the president’s mouth? He said, 'You're going to be on your own because we don't have a sponsor.' And I said, ‘Oh Lord, have mercy,'" Watts said.
He paid for a lot of the team activities and training out of his own pocket. He also decided to go with a two-man bobsled team instead of a four-man team because it was cheaper.
"The last race we had was in Lake Placid, New York," Watts said. "That was the last of the money I had to spend and I didn't know where to turn. I calculated the points I had achieved over the past two years, and I knew I was going to have enough points to qualify for the Olympics, but the funding wasn't there."
Watts thought about quitting. However, he decided to ask a friend in Evanston to create a website to ask the public for funding. It turned out to be a huge success. The team needed about $80,000 to go to Sochi. They raised more than $180,000 in less than a week.
“The movie did not hurt,” said Skog, “Everyone loves this team, their story, the underdog role they have. In the original days of their training here, they said their arms were hurting because while they were out running, they had to wave to people. People would be waving at them and they would wave back.”
“Maybe it’s because we are fast and we are nice people,” Dixon said with a laugh. “It means a lot to me, you know? This is my first Olympics. Many kids back home would like this dream and this opportunity to represent Jamaica in any form of Olympics.”
The team isn’t favored to win a medal in Sochi, but Watts and Dixon both say you never know what will happen.
"Oh man. Come on, man. I couldn't walk in the streets of Jamaica if we win a medal,” said Dixon. “Usain Bolt would be second to us, I tell you.”