LAKE PLACID — As Nelson “Chris” Stokes walked around the Mountain Pass Lodge at Mount Van Hoevenberg on Friday, the Jamaican Olympic bobsledder saw few reminders of his time training in this village many years ago. This lodge opened in 2020 — and the bobsled-luge-skeleton track opened in 2000 on the site of the 1980 bobsled and luge tracks. Instead, what Stokes saw was a glimpse of a future for his sport that he hopes to see come to fruition.
As the president of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation, a position he has held since 1995, Stokes wants to make Lake Placid the home for Jamaican bobsled. He said Lake Placid was always its second track and hopes to grow Jamaican bobsledding in this village.
“There is a warmth and culture here that is very close to Jamaica,” Stokes said. “Sort of a laid back, welcome to our community and a welcome to our home kind of feel that is not everywhere in the United States. It’s not everywhere in the World, but that’s very much here. So we feel at home here, we have been greeted by nothing but kindness and graciousness here. We believe that we can give this area an added degree of international exposure.”
He believes its something that is and can be leveraged by the Lake Placid community, the international bobsled fraternity and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which manages Lake Placid’s Olympic winter sports venues.
“In our view, with us being here, everybody should be better off,” Stokes said. “ORDA should be better off, Jamaica bobsled should be better off, the sport of bobsled should be better off. The opportunities are right in front of us, it’s just how do we sit down and say how can we organize that and understand each other and create a win-win situation.”
Stokes had just started his Master’s Degree at Washington State University when he received a letter from his brother, who let him know that he planned on competing in a then-relatively unknown sport called bobsled at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.
“I didn’t pay too much attention,” Stokes said. “Coming from Jamaica, the Olympics means (track and field athletes) Don Quarrie and Merlene Ottey, not snow, ice and figure skating.”
Stokes, himself, was training for the Olympics that same year — the Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea. His goal was to compete as a track and field athlete.
“I was entirely focused on that,” he said. “He just asked that I come to watch and support him. It seemed reasonable and if I didn’t my mother would say, ‘What kind of brother are you?’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll go up and watch.’”
Stokes watched his brother, Dudley, compete in the two-man bobsled event alongside Michael White. After the event was over, Dudley asked him to try pushing the sled during a four-man training event.
“So I got behind the sled and pushed it,” Stokes said. “Then I heard some clicking; I didn’t know they were timing it. I got to the bottom, and the sled got to the bottom of the run. It came back down and I pushed it back up. I said, ‘Boy that was a lot of fun.’”
With the four-man event just days away, tragedy struck the Jamaican bobsled team when athlete Caswell Allen suffered an injury just days before the event. The team’s two coaches and three remaining Jamaican bobsled athletes — Stokes’ brother Dudley, White and Devon Harris — called a staff meeting. Stokes was in the room at the time.
“I see them off in this corner arguing and discussing things and so on,” he said. “Then my brother leaves the group of the two coaches and the two other athletes and he comes to me and says, ‘We want you to push the sled.’
“We got into this big argument over the impossibility of that,” Stokes added. “Anyway, I said, ‘OK, I’ll try.’”
After seeing the sled for the first time on Monday, Feb. 22, 1988, Stokes pushed off from the top of the bobsled the following day. He spent the next three days training, before competing in his first-ever bobsled race Saturday morning.
“There’s a lot of things about how I got registered and accommodated — all of which is impossible today — but in those days it could’ve been done and it was done,” Stokes said. “My first bobsled race was an Olympic race.”
In their final run, the four Jamaican bobsled athletes crashed and carried their sled to the finish line. But to Stokes, the crash wasn’t what he cared about. The Jamaicans had posted the seventh-fastest start time that day.
“At that point, we were like ‘OK, we have a worth here in this sport and we can have a really good starting team,’” Stokes said.
When Stokes had agreed to compete in the four-man event at the 1988 Winter Olympics, he had no time to mentally prepare himself for the fear and anxiousness of flying down the bobsled track in front of thousands of fans.
He remembered what he told himself before the race: “Lock your elbows, push as hard as you can, jump in, make sure your butt is right to the back of the sled, make sure the handles are down, hold on tight and tuck in and wait until you hear somebody scream your name. Don’t forget to pull the brake and make sure you don’t pull the brake halfway through the runway.”
When the Games ended, Stokes had a complete emotional breakdown at the airport gate.
“I started weeping on top of my helmet,” he said. “Once you let go of that frame of mind, that I’m in a battle here and ‘what did I just do,’ and the fear of the anxious moments and sort of the nervousness, I just overcame it (with emotions). Which is good, because I got it out.”
“But there is a time for that, and the time for that was not at the start of the race,” he said. “The airport at the gate is fine, at the top of the hill when I’m about to go down at 80 miles per hour is not a good time to have an emotional breakdown.”
But even after his breakdown, Stokes still felt bobsledding was the sport for him. He discovered that after his first run.
“There have been folks that have been down to the top of the track and then gone to the hotel room to get their bags and were on the next plane home,” he said. “But for most people who stay into the sport, there is a rush and there is an excitement and a combination of speed and power that just draws you in and you’ll know if this is for me.”
Following the debut of Jamaican bobsled, which became the idea for the 1993 Disney film “Cool Runnings,” Stokes competed in three more Winter Olympics and became the president of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation.
Tour of Lake Placid
Stokes was in Lake Placid this past week for the Lake Placid Film Festival. The event hosted a screening of the movie “Cool Runnings,” which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
While in this village, Stokes spent time touring the state Olympic Regional Development Authority’s winter sports venues, including the bobsled track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, which he had trained at multiple different times over his 10-year bobsledding career.
While standing at the start of the bobsled track Friday afternoon, Stokes, who described himself as an Island guy who isn’t a big fan of the cold weather, felt a sense of calmness.
“It’s eerie, it’s one of those moments that I’m not here looking up at the start,” he said. “There’s a call of intensity during the race and that sort of contrast is uplifting for me. It’s also helpful to understand that scenario is not something to be afraid of, but it’s something to embrace. Many times I’ve stood there and seen teammates stand there in fear. But there was a moment you overcame yourself.”
The track has undergone renovations since Stokes trained in this village, but he remembered the moment he first stood at the start and overcame his initial fear of sliding down the bobsled track in Lake Placid.
“There are things that happen and there are things that you can take away from what happens and that’s one of the things that I draw from with what happened in my bobsled career,” he said.
When Stokes saw the indoor push track inside the base lodge at Mount Van Hoevenberg, he said it was a lot “fancier” than the original push track he first tried bobsledding on. The push track in Calgary in 1988 was outside and was more like a track and field running surface, according to Stokes.
Despite training in Lake Placid for weeks at a time during his career, Stokes never really ventured out into the village. He would often spend days training, watching films and eating before immediately heading to bed.
“I never really got to see so much of the town,” he said. “Just walking through the town … it’s extremely impressive and I’ve spent time in many legacy cities for winter sports.
“I was watching 10-year-olds play hockey, who maybe don’t have the consciousness of what happened with Miracle on Ice,” Stokes added. “(They probably) don’t have the consciousness that in 1974 somebody made a pitch and the Games came here and the investment that was made between 1974 and 1980 is still generating revenue today.”
Stokes said the state-funded upgrades — New York state has invested more than $600 million into ORDA-managed winter sports venues over the past few years — are a fantastic example of a past Winter Olympic host that can still generate revenue even years after the Olympics. He added that Lake Placid needs to be model for the rest of the world.
“Piece of art”
During the 1988 Winter Olympics, Stokes was the brakeman for the four-man Jamaican bobsled team. In the movie “Cool Runnings,” the brakeman is Sanka Coffie, played by Doug E. Doug. Stokes’ personality happens to be nothing like Coffie’s.
Coffie, a completely fictional character, is a pushcart derby champion and provides comedic relief throughout the film. Stokes said he doesn’t relate to any of the characters.
“I see the movie as a piece of art,” he said. “When you see the movie or walk out of the theater or on whatever device, you have a very clear idea of the challenges we faced and the struggles we went through and the happy and unhappy ending of the story.
“It wasn’t a Netflix documentary and I’m OK with that,” he added. “I think it was really well done. It’s art and it tells a story. It’s not for me to like and it’s certainly not for me to dislike when I see the impact that it has on people’s lives. People watch that movie and it’s a source of strength and encouragement for them.”
While most of the movie is very loosely based on what actually happened with the Jamaican bobsled team, Stokes said it wasn’t an important detail to have all of the facts completely accurate.
“What purpose does that serve?” he said. “The movie, which is set out to entertain and cause people to laugh, cry and feel inspired. It’s an important contribution to uplifting the human spirit around the world and that continues today.”
Future of Jamaican Bobsled
When “Cool Runnings” hit theaters in 1993, the film grossed over $100 million and brought attention to the sport. Stokes believes that the single most valuable property in the world of bobsled is Jamaica bobsled.
“Most people — bobsled purists — don’t like to hear this, but globally, most people who have heard about bobsled (heard about it) through Jamaica bobsled,” he said. “That is not something that we should take for granted.”
After Stokes retired from bobsledding in 1998, Jamaican bobsled hit a standstill when it came to competing in the Winter Olympics. The country took part in the Olympics just three times — in two-man twice and two-woman once — between 2002 to 2018.
However, in the 2022 Olympics, Jamaica competed in three disciplines, returning to four-man for the first time in 24 years, while also competing in two-man and monobob.
“We’re now going through a sort of renaissance in Jamaica bobsleigh,” Stokes said. “We’re having athletes 16- to 18-years-old focusing on the Youth Olympics right now. We want to reestablish, formally, Lake Placid as our home training base and have a program of recruitment and development based out of Jamaica, Lake Placid and the rest of the world of bobsleigh and get to back where we were systematically because we believe, we have seen and we are convinced that we can.”
Stokes helped create a recruiting program in Jamaica called “Back to the Well,” where they look to find athletes in communities throughout Jamaica. He added the some of the athletes they already have in the program are either in high school or have graduated.
“We have about a dozen now that we are working on that will be up here in a couple of weeks to get them on that program,” he said. “We are taking a little bit longer view and we understand it takes six to eight years to develop a World Class bobsledder.”
Stokes’ goal with the program is to have four pilots at a World Cup level, while also having elite level athletes competing at the highest level.
One of the biggest challenges is finances. He said this needs to be fixed, so Jamaica can fully show how good its athletes really are.
“It’s a mission impossible,” he said. “But it’s a mission that continues.”