Willie Davenport was born in central Alabama and was a college track standout in Baton Rouge, La. He qualified for four consecutive U.S. Olympic track teams as a hurdler, winning the gold medal at 110 meters in Mexico City in 1968 and a bronze eight years later in Montreal, and, in 1982, was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Davenport would later become a very successful track coach.
All of which makes it extraordinary that, arguably, Davenport’s greatest Olympic legacy may have been in the Winter Olympic sport of bobsled. After his hurdling career ended, Davenport accepted an invitation to train with the U.S. national team in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the 1980 Winter Games would be staged. He wound up, at 36 years of age, making the Olympic bobsled team as a push athlete and managed a respectable 12th-place finish in Lake Placid.
Amid the “Miracle on Ice” frenzy at that Olympics, bobsled was not even a blip on the American sports radar. However, Davenport’s Lake Placid run proved to be a historic milestone, impacting both the sport of bobsled and the overall fabric of the Winter Games: Davenport and his sled-mate Jeff Gadley, a college decathlete, became the first black men ever to compete at the Winter Olympics.
While black athletes remain a small minority among Winter Olympians, their numbers have been increasing steadily with some highly visible success. And nowhere is that more evident than in bobsled. Davenport blazed a path that is still being followed today, revealing bobsled as a sport that was receptive to crossover athletes. In his icy wake, the U.S. bobsled federation would lure NFLers like Herschel Walker, who won football’s Heisman trophy as a running back at University of Georgia, and Willie Gault, who won a Super Bowl ring as a wide receiver with the Chicago Bears. Gault made it to Calgary in 1988 as an Olympic alternate, while Walker was the back half of a two-man sled that finished seventh at the 1992 Albertville Games.
This crossover approach worked out exceptionally well for both parties. Having spent years developing explosive start speed and balance, track stars helped boost the fortunes of a national team that had slipped a long way since the last U.S. Olympic bobsledding medal in 1948. The big-name athletes also brought welcome attention to a sport that, for a long time, had garnered virtually none by dint of either performance or personality.
In return, these newly minted bobsledders—most of them 30-somethings and in sporting middle age—could extend their competitive careers as elite athletes. Moreover, they discovered that in contrast with track and other Olympic disciplines, bobsledding offered a fast path to the Games. On Tuesday in Sochi, sprinter Lauryn Williams, a gold-medalist with America’s 4x100 meter relay team at London 2012, will push the No. 1 sled for the U.S. women after competing in her first bobsled race just three months ago.
It was when women’s bobsledding was first added to the Olympic sports roster, at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, that the “Davenport” approach truly flowered. In Salt Lake bobsledder Vonetta Flowers, a former college sprinter and long jumper, became the first black athlete ever to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. And the U.S. men’s bobsled team broke its 54-year medal drought, winning both silver and bronze in the four-man event, with two former track standouts, Randy Jones and Garrett Hines, on the silver-medal team. (Davenport got to celebrate the Salt Lake breakthroughs, but died of a heart attack that same year at age 59.)
Bobsledding has clearly emerged as the unofficial black Winter Olympics sport. Four years ago in Vancouver, there were black athletes on the bobsled teams of at least five different nations and an African-American woman, Elana Meyers, a former elite softball player from Georgia, won a bronze medal in the two-woman event. Now in Sochi, five of the six members of the U.S. women’s bobsled team are African Americans. “It shows we don’t have to be limited by race or gender or whatever and how far we have come as a sport,” Meyers told the Chicago Tribune.
All three African-American women on the 2014 U.S. team as brakemen-push athletes are former track stars: Williams, a sprinter who medaled at two Olympics, on sled No. 1; Aja Evans, who reached the Olympic trials in shot put, on sled No. 2: and Lolo Jones, a two-time Olympian and former world number one in the 100-meter hurdles, on sled No. 3.
But for the first time in Olympic history, black athletes will also be driving sleds, adding leadership and technical responsibilities to the daunting physical challenges. Vancouver bobsled medalist Meyers, now the No. 2-ranked driver in the world, will be at the helm of the top U.S. sled, paired with Williams, who has won two gold medals and a silver in her only four World Cup bobsled races. Jazmine Fenlator, another recruit from the college track-and-field ranks and the seventh-ranked driver in the world, will pilot U.S. sled No. 3 with Lolo Jones aboard.
Words like “leadership” and “technical” take on a little more weight when they mean steering more than 700 pounds of sled and bodies at speeds reaching more than 100 miles per hour. The slightest deviation from the right path can be the difference between an Olympic medal and an Olympic footnote (and a greater deviation can result in a far more serious problem).
Olympic success has traditionally been measured almost exclusively in medals, and the U.S. women bobsledders have a shot at winning one or even two of those precious keepsakes. But sometimes victory can be claimed long before a race is run. And this American women’s bobsled team already has victory written all over it.
Mark Starr, a former national sports correspondent for Newsweek magazine, has covered 11 consecutive Olympics, including six Winter Games.