Almost everyone has seen the movie Cool Runnings, can recite some quotes, and might say that the “facts” from that film are all they truly know about Jamaica’s contribution to the world of sports. But, Devon Harris, one of the founding members of Jamaica’s first bobsled team, spoke with Kelsey McKnight about his rise to Olympic fame and how he is now giving back.
Three-time Olympian, published author, philanthropist keynote speaker, father, and husband Devon Harris was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1964, a tough community stricken with poverty and disadvantage. But, Harris knew that he was worth more, that he could do more, with the athletic abilities he worked hard to achieve.
He graduated with a Queen’s Commission from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, making him an officer in the Jamaican Defense Force, something he sees as one of the defining features of his life. He’s still very proud of his ability to graduate from such a respected establishment and says, “I was this boy from the hood going to the most prestigious military school in the world”. The military was his way out of the ghetto, and he made it happen.
Being in the Olympics was always a goal for Harris, even from a young age. An avid track and field runner, he had originally planned on trying out for the 1984 summer Olympics, but didn’t make the team. Still, while serving as an active military officer, he maintained his Olympic dreams, waiting for his next chance to try for gold.
While Harris was serving his country, two Americans, George Fitch and William Maloney, were trying to make bobsledding history. When the pair first saw the Jamaican pushcart derbies, a summer tradition akin to “soapbox racing”, they saw striking similarities to the Olympic sport of bobsledding. They attempted to lure some of the summer Olympic team to participate, but could not find any athletes willing to try. They then turned to the Jamaican Defense Force for participants, as the military had no shortage of physically fit men.
Harris was hoping for a shot to complete as a runner in the 1988 summer Olympics in South Korea when his Colonel implored him to try out for the bobsled team. While Harris was skeptical of the mere idea of bobsledding, he soon saw it as his opportunity to become an Olympian. Competition was tough, but Harris pulled through with the fastest push time, giving him a place on the Olympic team.
In 1988 Harris went to Calgary, Alberta, Canada. While they did make history by being the first Jamaicans to participate in that event, they did not place, as their driver, Dudley Stokes, lost control of the sled. It fell atop the four men and continued sliding down the track. While no one was seriously injured, it was the end of that event for Jamaica.
It was that event that inspired the blockbuster hit Cool Runnings. But Harris says that the movie should not merely say ‘based on a true story’ but, “loosely based on a true story”. He tells me that, while it was the movie did a fantastic job of “depicting the spirit of the team” and he found it to be very “flattering”, it was basically just an entertaining film that was highly changed from the real story. When asked, Harris says that the characters in the movie were completely fictitious, he sees himself as a bit ‘Yul Brenner’. Yul was determined, pushed himself to the limits, and was a bit of a dreamer who aimed high, something Harris says he tries to do in everything that he sets his mind to.
After the 1988 Olympics, Harris went on to compete two more times; in 1992 and 1998, both in the bobsledding arena. He says that being an Olympian didn’t change him in the way one thought they might. I had assumed that he would have become somewhat of a celebrity in Jamaica, but I was wrong. He tells me that he saw “bobsledding as an extension of my military career”, something he did to honor his country. After each game, he would take off his bobsledding uniform and put on his military one, back to work, until he retired form the military after the 1992 Olympics.
Being an Olympian, and an officer in the military, might be enough for some people, but not Devon Harris. He decided to put the strength and energy he once poured into bobsledding into inspiring others to follow their dreams. So far, he’s written two books, with more in the works.
His first book is actually for children and is titled, Yes I Can: The Story of the Jamaican Bobsled Team. Harris told me “I wanted to tell them a story to encourage them to dream big”. It is the real tale of Harris’s first Olympic team, and is beautifully illustrated.
The next book is Keep On Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel where Harris takes the lessons learned from his own life to help others reach their full potential. He rose from the unsavory neighborhoods of Kingston to universal notoriety through nothing but hard work and determination.
In fact, motivating others to go for their dreams is something that Harris has found a renewed passion for. He maintains a philanthropy called The Keep On Pushing Foundation that feeds children at Harris’s former elementary school, Drews Avenue Primary School. In some disadvantaged areas, the only meals some kids receive is from their schools. Harris hopes this will help bolster attendance and give the children the chance at furthering their education.
Devon Harris also travels as a keynote speaker, inspiring others and teaching them that “you can accomplish virtually every you put your mind to…the key is to set obtainable goals and pour your heart into your passion”. His seminars and speeches cater to people of all ages, races, creeds, and walks of life because everyone needs to Keep on Pushing.
To learn more about Devon Harris, please visit Devonharris.com
You can follow him on twitter at Twitter.com/Keeponpushing88
And give back by visiting Keeponpushing.org