Star-Bulletin Sports

Sunday, May 27, 2001

Icemen cometh from Hawaii

A single word sets a former Olympian
on a journey to find the true origin
of his favorite sport, only to find
the roots of bobsledding right
under his feet in Hawaii

By Kalani Simpson

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series about sledding's past and present in Hawaii. In tomorrow's Part II -- Hawaii's Cool Runnings -- Roger Potter's obsession with the ancient Hawaiian sled sport of holua takes a new turn, thanks to the influence of a popular movie.

THIS IS A STORY about the future and the past, about dreams and legends and hopes. This is a story of a man who gets so worked up at the excitement of these things, of the possibilities and the very joy at the connection between them that he almost can't contain himself with the wonder of it all.

Roger Potter is an Englishman, with an English accent, and a pleasant, caricaturist's dream of a face.

Roger Potter is a man who is quick to laugh, with an enthusiastic voice that is so very interesting to listen to, whether you really follow what he's talking about or not.

This story starts with Potter sitting in front of a book, reading, very much like you're reading right now. It was all launched by a single word, if you want to know the truth. A word so powerful that Potter's whole world started spinning around him as he read it. A word that, as its implications dawned on him, caused a good part of his life to flash before his very eyes. So he blinked, took a breath, and looked down at it again:

Holua. To sled.

There it was, right there in front of him, and yet somehow it still didn't quite compute. Holua. To sled.

Potter had been in Hawaii for many years (soon to be 19) and had developed a great love for Hawaiian history and culture and language, which was why he was reading this particular book in the first place. But he had never come across anything such as this. It was amazing. And so Potter had to know more. He read the books and did the research and studied the drawings and tromped across harsh lava rock to see the sites. He looked up the legends and read the journals. And the picture became more and more complete, and the word grew with each step. And then suddenly he just knew.

Holua! To sled!

Do you know what this all means?

The ancient Hawaiians invented bobsledding!

POTTER KNEW A THING or two about bobsledding, and he knew a thing or two about crazy ideas as well. When he was in the Royal Air Force, back in Britain as a young man, he'd told the army that if they would just back him, just sponsor his efforts, he could give them, the army, their very own Olympic bobsled team. And somehow, Potter being the persuasive, enthusiastic chap that he is, actually did get somebody to give him what he wanted.

"And so I transformed my commission and went into the army, and from the ranks, I built a team," Potter said. "And we took a 2- and a 4-man to the 1980 Olympic Games, directly from the regiment."

Potter took a bunch of guys from the army and qualified for the Olympics. Made them world class. Finished in the top 20 with him as the driver for Great Britain.

"I said, That's it, I've retired!" Potter said with a laugh. "I'm never going to do any better than that."

So Potter retired, traveled all around the world, never thought he'd see a bobsled again. But then he found his home in Hawaii. And discovered the word that would bring all the old dreams to life, and some new ones with them.

Holua. To sled.

"WELL THIS OF COURSE really galvanized me, because in Europe and around the world, if you look in any encyclopedia, it always starts with, the British started it, the Americans started it in the 1850s. So when I came upon this word 'holua,' to sled, it really was like, wait a minute! Because when I was racing myself I used to talk, be asked to take my sled along and talk about the sport to children and so forth, stuff like that. I knew all the history, Us British! Us Americans!, you know, we did all this. So you can imagine the reaction I had when I suddenly see that it may have started here (in Hawaii).

"So I went into serious research over it, it became -- well, you can see where my passion has gone to. I had suddenly realized it wasn't Europeans that started it, but Polynesians.

"I really started to get excited."

THE CHILD LAY LIFELESS. It wasn't moving. It wasn't breathing. The doctor, a priest called in specially by the baby's father, was working feverishly. But the situation looked dire.

The father was heartbroken. He was of an advanced age for fatherhood. He'd had many children already. He was surely a grandfather himself. Perhaps even a great-grandfather. He'd had everything and done anything a man could ever want, a full life indeed. But all this was no comfort if his son would not live.

And then, a cry! The boy would make it.

There was great relief and joy throughout the land. The father said in celebration that he would build the greatest sled run ever.

It was 1814. The child was Kauikeauoli, Hawaii's third king, son of the great Kamehameha.

And the sled run, if you know where to look in Kona, is still there. A mile long. From the mountain to the sea. The greatest the world had ever seen.

MANY SUCH HOLUA runs were built in ancient times, dozens and dozens on the Big Island alone. Many were hundreds of yards long and up to -- in the case of Kauikeauoli's slide -- a mile or more. They were built on natural slopes with stone architecture.

"They say it must have taken a million man hours to build the thing," Potter said of the Kamehameha III run at Keauhou, a National Historic Landmark. "You could see how focused and dedicated they were."

Holua was big-time. Crowds gathered, wagers were exchanged. The biggest daredevils of the alii -- men and women -- risked life and limb for sport.

The tracks of rock were covered with dirt, then old, used lauhala mats over that, and finally pili grass smeared with kukui nut oil for speed and lubrication. Contestants took a running start with 7-, 12- or 18-foot sleds, speeding headfirst toward victory or catastrophe.

"They must have been at 70 miles an hour," Potter said, wonder creeping into his voice. "I'm telling you, you don't slide very far if you hit volcanic rock. ... That's why it was considered so extreme, because, you know, no helmet, in a malo."

Hawaiian historian S.M. Kamakau, born a year after Kauikeauoli, wrote that holua riders "sped faster than a rac horse or a railroad train."

And all this happened hundreds of years before Europeans started having similar contests down mountains of snow.

"My premise is, whatever way you look at it, the Hawaiians did it first," said Potter. "And this (pointing to an early European bobsled from 1904) is the same as this (the holua papa sled)."

By the time bobsledding appeared as a sport in Europe in the 1850s, the Makahiki festivals, and the holua, were all but extinct.

Potter was convinced his theory was correct, and that's when he got his second crazy idea.

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