Star-Bulletin Sports

Monday, May 28, 2001


Bobsledders Sadie Martin, Lori Phillips and Christine
Chaplin practice push-starting their bobsled on wheels
along Makaiwa Street in Kahala.

‘Cool Runnings’
make a run for
the Olympics

Roger Potter brings his research
to life, forging a bobsled team out
of desire and athletic ability

By Kalani Simpson

Now convinced that Hawaiians had invented the sport of bobsledding in ancient times, former British Olympian Roger Potter got even more excited about the old holua.

"Hey, the Hawaiians did it first, and they deserve respect for it," Potter said. "And it's something that I know the world will be interested in. Believe it or not, the mainland, and around, is very interested in this, ... especially since that great movie, 'Cool Runnings.' "

It was the second epiphany. Roger Potter was on Kauai in the early '90s, right in the midst of his most feverish holua studies. "And out comes this 'Cool Runnings,' " he said. "Well, I thought, 'My goodness! There's something in this. Now people understand.' Before then, people would ask, 'What did you do?' I'd say I was a bobsledder, it would just go right over their heads."

The movie stoked his fire into a raging flame. The holua was already his passion, but now? If the Hawaiians invented it, why couldn't they do it again? They had a history, where the Jamaicans had none. And Potter had already done something similar in his own life, building a team from scratch. It could be done. With the history of the holua, it should be done.

"Well, I thought this is too good of an idea, and I've become pretty fanatical about it, as you probably gather," he said.

And the best direction to head in was women's bobsledding, because that is a brand new sport for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. It was going to be big. Bobsledders would be the new stars, just like women pole vaulters were in the 2000 Summer Games. It would be as big as figure skating, some said.

And if he was starting from scratch, then so was everyone else.

"Well you see, when you've got an inaugural sport, one, there's less perfection at it, because they're new," Potter said. "And there's less people doing it. So what it basically means, you've got more chance."

It really could be done. Maybe.

Women bobsledders from Hawaii?

It doesn't sound plausible, but Potter found some. He advertised in the papers for "women with the right stuff." Triathletes. Runners. Tough athletes looking to take on something new. He found four of them. Two who help out on the team, with the training. And two who are serious, who actually want to push a sled in the Olympic Games.

"This is so great for women," Christine Chaplin, one of the serious ones, said.

IF YOU WANT to talk about women on the sled, the most famous woman of the holua, of course, is the goddess Pele. It would have been nice if Pele had been a great champion and raced undefeated and been happy with every trip down the hill.

According to legend, Pele loved the holua. That is not to say that she was particularly good at it.

Kahawali was an alii of Puna long ago and an excellent holua rider. He was holding court one day, wowing the makaainana with his holua skill, when a brash, beautiful woman suddenly appeared and challenged him to a contest.

People of the Big Island know that if a mysterious Hawaiian woman or little girl or wise tutu arrives out of nowhere, it is always best to treat her with utmost courtesy and respect. But of course Kahawali was the alii, and he had wealth and dominance over all, and was at the height of his powers as an athlete. So he proceeded to trash talk her, and of course, since he was the best holua rider in Puna, he beat her. (In case you're scoring at home, no, not a good move.)

Pele reacted the way most of us would. She claimed her sled was broken and wanted to use his instead. But Kahawali had no patience now, so he only insulted her again and took off down the hill.

Despite his crude triumph, something made him turn around halfway down the run. What he saw was a lava flow speeding down the track toward him. It was, he realized at last, the volcano goddess Pele in all her fury.

Because he was so fast, so good at the holua, he was able to make it down the run ahead of her, and ran to the shore, diving into the ocean as Pele dumped her fire into the sea. Kahawali's brother was there to rescue him, and they sped away on a canoe, terrified, never to return to the Big Island again.

Now that's a woman with the right stuff.

"BUT I NEEDED a sled. Well, this is where I knew that there was a destiny about it," Potter said.

"So I (paid for the sled). And I didn't care, I just wanted a sled. ... I said to (the person who the sled was purchased from), 'Is there anything special about this sled, because ... it makes it much more exciting ... if it's, 'Oh, this was in the Olympic Games,' 'The Italians drove this,' or whatever.

"He said, 'It was built in Italy.' Well, most of them are built in Italy. 'But it was in the movie "Cool Runnings.'

"Well when I heard that, I mean, I just knew it."

SO NOW Potter had his sled. Not the Jamaican sled, not the one that crashed. But the slow-motion red beauty that took the Jamaicans' breath away in the movie, the magical ride of the champion Swiss.

It sits in a garage in Kahala now, and the Holua team trains by pushing it down the street.

This actually isn't unusual. That's how all the teams train, in fact -- even the mighty Swiss. Every bobsled outfit in the world has a sled with wheels that they push down the street. What did you think they did in the summer?

"So everybody's doing this, pushing sleds on wheels," Potter said. "Simple as that."

A Hawaii team is not under as much of a competitive disadvantage as some people might think.

"You see, I don't need ice here!" Potter said. "Every time I've ever mentioned this idea to anybody, it's always been, 'But we have no ice, Roger!' But I don't need any ice. We have these tracks very near. It's just a red-eye, you see."

IN MARCH, Potter took his prospects, Christine Chaplin, a triathlete, and Sadie Martin, a University of Hawaii trackster, to Canada, to the Calgary Olympic run.

He can do this, he said. Train a team in Hawaii, and then whenever they need a tune-up, take them to Canada or Salt Lake for the real thing. Take the 10 o'clock "Honolulu City Lights" flight out, fly all night, be on the sled run with the officials by noon the next day and -- Presto! -- ride a bobsled down a frozen track.

"Fortunately, they loved it," Potter said. "They loved it. It was a bit of a sweat to me, because I wasn't sure, because you really don't know until they come down."

When Martin came down, she was interviewed by Canadian television. The thought of a Hawaii bobsled team was so eccentric, so wild, that Team Holua made the national nightly news in Canada. Martin looked into the camera and said matter-of-factly that the Hawaiians had done it before. They would do it again. After a breakneck ride down a frozen mountain she had become, if she wasn't before, a very determined young lady.

"Now, she's really good because she's basically a heptathlete," Potter said. "And that's what you need for this. To throw this out, you need somebody who's strong, but fast. It's not just weightlifting. The throw ... takes upper body strength. But then you've got to throw yourself out, which takes a long jumper. And then you've got to sprint like mad, right? So that takes a sprinter. So she was perfect."

But something else made Martin even more perfect.

She's a Kauai girl.

"We've now got a whole picture," Potter said. "You know, it's the past. We're linking it now with the present. The women used to do it, the old chiefs used to do it, and we're bringing it all the way through and we're modernizing it."

THE HAWAII "Cool Runnings" continues. Chaplin and Martin won't be qualifying for the Salt Lake Olympics as a Hawaii team. No, not even Potter is that crazy. It takes a good four or five years to learn how to drive a bobsled at the elite level.

What about the movie? The Jamaicans?

"Well, that's why they crashed," Potter said.

But he believes that if his women continue to hit that sled, that magic "Cool Runnings" relic, if they push it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times between now and October, they can be among the best starters in the United States at the Olympic Trials. Ice or no. Experience or no. And then, if they have a good start time at the trials, one or both might have a shot at being on the back end of a United States sled. The U.S. Olympic team will want the best pushers to go with the best drivers.

"You can always change somebody around in the back," Potter said. "And I'm looking at, if she's good and she shows that she's one of the best, then she should have a shot of getting into the squad." That's where the dry land work pays off. That's where the legend of the holua could come to life once again.

Hawaii women sledding in the Olympics. The idea is so exciting that Potter can just see the old Hawaiians speeding to glory down their holua runs. He can just see it.

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series about sledding's past and present in Hawaii. In yesterday's Part I, a former British Olympian stumbled upon the ancient Hawaiian sled sport of holua, and, upon further research, came to the ecstatic conclusion that Hawaiians were the pioneer bobsledders. In part two, these dreams spur him into action in modern Hawaii.

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