Kragthorpe: Wyoming’s Jamaican bobsledder trying to avoid last place
Olympics • Evanston’s Winston Watts overwhelmed by Sochi reception, but serious about Games
Published: February 17, 2014 07:39AM
Updated: February 17, 2014 04:29PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Krasnaya Polyana, Russia

A few years before Winston Watts pictured himself driving a bobsled in the 2014 Olympics, there was a sign. Among the residents who joined Watts in his U.S. citizenship ceremony was a woman whose hometown is Sochi, Russia.

And there he was Sunday night at the Sanki Sliding Center — a 47-year-old, four-time Olympian who once described himself as “one of the best-known guys” where he lives: Evanston, Wyo.

He’s also one of the most recognizable figures in these Games, popular with fans, the media and other athletes. The attention is further proof that there’s no Olympic brand quite like “Jamaican bobsledders.” The phenomenon explains how, after his two-man sled recently qualified for these Games, Watts easily raised $100,000 for equipment and travel costs via an internet funding campaign.

So Watts drove his green, yellow and black bobsled around the track … slowly. His return to the Olympic ice was anything but a resounding success. The Jamaicans, with Watts and brakeman Marvin Dixon, stood last among the 30 teams after the first run and they lost even more time in the second run.

Not that Watts was discouraged, exactly. “First or last,” he repeatedly told waves of interviewers, “we’re just happy to be here.”

And the southwestern corner of Wyoming again is proudly represented in the Games. Paul Skog, an Evanston attorney, seized a marketing opportunity in advance of the 2002 Olympics and made the town the official headquarters of the Jamaican bobsled team. And just as Skog once envisioned, Watts came to like Evanston so much that he moved there a few years later.

A military veteran and former high school track and field athlete, Watts had joined the Jamaican bobsled program in 1993, in time to help promote “Cool Runnings.” The movie, a Hollywood version of the team’s initial Winter Olympic showing in 1988, served as a nice marketing vehicle, even if not everyone took seriously the ice-track pursuits of a Caribbean island nation.

Outsiders “used to think we’re a bunch of jokers,” Watts once told me. “They figured out we’re not jokers. We’re serious competitors like everybody else.”

Watts proved that in 2002, teaming with brakeman Lascelles Brown to break the two-man start record on the Utah Olympic Park course, on the way to a 28th-place finish. That remained the last appearance of Jamaican bobsledders in the Games until Sunday. Watts retired after an unsuccessful effort to qualify in 2006, but he made it to Russia, where he’s a celebrity in the athletes’ village and everywhere else he goes.

He happily described the response as “so overwhelming.”

The competition also fits that description. Even the Jamaicans’ specialty, a fast start, did not come together. Their time for the opening segment ranked 22nd in the first run, and Watts’ wobbly driving on a very technical track slowed them down from there.

That’s not unexpected, considering the team’s equipment and training limitations. All the Jamaicans can do is hope to catch 29th-place Serbia — they trail by 0.36 seconds, the same gap that USA-1 driver Steven Holcomb must make up to win a gold medal — in Monday’s remaining two runs. They’ll certainly try. After the experience of two runs, Watts said, “We don’t have any more excuse.”

And then he looked further ahead, saying, “This is my fourth Olympics. Hopefully, it won’t be last.”

He laughed when he said that, knowing he’ll be 51 in 2018. Then again, he’s a Jamaican bobsledder from Wyoming, and who would have imagined seeing those words in the same sentence?

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt