Jamaican sliders welcomed warmly

Bobsleigh team touches down in Pemberton

The hottest team on ice has arrived in Pemberton. The Jamaican bobsleigh team, which has made the Spud Valley its new North American training base for the run-up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, arrived in Vancouver on Saturday (Dec. 13) and was greeted warmly by a crowd of about 100 Pembertonians - plus a media throng --at a Sunday afternoon welcoming ceremony in the new community centre.

The Jamaican contingent at the ceremony was led by the charismatic Devon Harris, a member of the original Jamaican bobsleigh team that captured international hearts and minds with their plucky run at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

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Harris arrived with the current team members and their coach to serve as an advisor in the first few days of their stay, and he thanked Sunday's crowd for their warm welcome on such a bitterly cold day.

Flanked at the front of the crowd by team members Hannukkah Wallace, Joel Alexander, Marvin Dixon and Garnett Jones and coach Wayne Thomas, Harris joked about the portrayal of the first Jamaican sliding squad in Cool Runnings, the 1993 Disney movie that cemented their fame.

He said he knows he'll be asked which character he was, and his response is, "I was the coach (played by John Candy) I went on a diet, got a tan and this is the new me."

The Jamaican program went on to use Evanston, Wyo., as its North American training base for 11 years, and the team was embraced by the town as a way to get connected to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy, addressing the crowd waving Jamaican and Canadian flags at Sunday's welcome ceremony, said he feels the Jamaican team and Pemberton have a lot in common: "We both believe that if we work hard, there really are no limits," he said.

Susie Gimse, Village of Pemberton councillor and Squamish-Lillooet Regional District Area C director, told the athletes that the community is behind them in their drive to qualify for the Olympics, and she hopes Pemberton's welcoming spirit will contribute to their success.

"Just know that you won't just have your country, Jamaica, rooting for you -- you will have the entire Pemberton community cheering you along the way," she said.

For their part, the Jamaicans said they are grateful for Pemberton's hospitality and help in reaching their goal of qualifying for the 2010 Games, since they missed out on the 2006 Olympics.

"We really appreciate it. We're very happy because it will put us close to the track, it will put us close to the area the Olympics will be in, and it's a small town, so a lot of the big-city distractions are already excluded. So we really welcome an opportunity like this," Thomas said.

Wallace, the team's driver, said he thinks Pemberton and its citizens are nice, even though his first impression of the area was that it's "very cold."

Ian and Michelle Porter of the Copperdome Lodge initiated the team's move to Pemberton by offering them free accommodation, and the community response has seemed primarily enthusiastic thus far.

The eager audience members at Sunday's event crowded around the team for a post-speech autograph session, and Pemberton Economic Development Consultant Alexandra Ross, who is coordinating sponsorship and fundraising for the team, said the Jamaicans later mingled happily with community members in darts and pool games at the Pemberton Legion. Other locals are pitching in to help with food and transportation.

One potential fly in the ointment is the question of track time. It's been unclear how much the Jamaicans will be able to use the Whistler Sliding Centre outside the January 2009 training week for international teams.

Thomas said his team can benefit from using the weight room in the new community centre, and they'll make do by training on the Calgary course when they can. Ross said Wallace, Thomas and Dixon headed to Alberta this week.

In the meantime, Pemberton officials are encouraging community members to get involved with the movement. That can range from sponsoring the purchase of more weight equipment for the fitness room or volunteering with events.

To inquire about volunteering, contact Ross at (604) 905-8672 or edc.alex@telus.net, or Lizz Kelly at (604) 905-9766 or lizzybuzz@telus.net

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