Drawing laughs, cheers and gasps of amazement from St. John’s University students, faculty members and administrators, Jamaican-born author and motivational speaker Devon Harris shared the story of his unlikely path to becoming a three-time Olympic bobsledder in a lively lecture as part of the University’s Caribbean Writers Series. The event was held in the D’Angelo Center on Monday, March 31.
Harris was a member of the legendary first Jamaican bobsled team which competed in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The team’s story inspired the Disney blockbuster Cool Runnings, which captivated audiences worldwide. Harris – who also captained the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France, and the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan – spoke of his early athletic career and Olympic aspirations and the life lessons learned along his incredible journey. He concluded the lecture by fielding questions from his audience.
“If someone told me way back then that I’d be speaking to you all in this room at this moment, I would have never believed them,” said Harris, who grew up in the Olympic Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica.
Audience members were treated to a slideshow of authentic pictures depicting Harris and his teammates in preparation for the 1988 Games, including the Jamaican team pushing its famous makeshift training bobsled on wheels. Harris recounted seeing a bobsled for the first time in Lake Placid, N.Y., in September of 1987, just a few months before competing in the 1988 Olympic Games. He even admitted to being “scared to death” on his very first runs in a bobsled, although he added he was very quickly “hooked in an extraordinary way.” A video of Jamaica’s final run at the Calgary Games was also viewed, which ended in a violent crash, although Harris called the experience an unquestionable success while using the memory as a lesson for everyday life.
“How you see yourself is how the world will eventually see you,” said Harris. “Initially the world won’t see you that way because there will be preconceived notions about who you are and what you are capable of. ‘If you’re Jamaican you can’t bobsled.’ That’s how they saw us. They no longer see us that way.”
Harris, who graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sanhurst and was first pitched the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team in his time as a Lieutenant in the Jamaica Defense Force, has used his momentum from the racing track to travel the world and make an impact in the lives of thousands. As founder of The Keep On Pushing Foundation, he works to support and enhance the education of disadvantaged children around the globe while providing practical solutions to the challenges preventing them from receiving a normal upbringing. Harris also serves as an athlete ambassador with Right to Play, an international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play programs in refugee camps around the world to enhance child development and build community capacity. Harris is also the accomplished author of the motivational children’s book, “Yes, I Can!,” and the semi-autobiographical motivational book, “Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings.”
On Monday, Harris offered his audience motivational advice concerning overcoming natural fears and building upon successes and accomplishments as well as the importance of persistence, self-belief and teamwork. Following his lecture, Harris entertained questions from his audience, revealing everything from his experience at the recent Sochi Winter Olympics to his favorite workout song.
University Provost Robert A. Mangione, Ed.D., R.Ph. delivered a welcome for the event, before Vice-President for Student Affairs and Co-Chair of the President’s Multicultural Advisory Committee Kathryn T. Huntchinson, Ph.D., followed with opening remarks. Caribbean Students Association Secretary Andeisha Carbon introduced Harris and Multicultural Affairs Assistant Director Andrew Bennett ended the lecture with closing remarks.
“There is a saying that is used when something is believed to be near impossible to achieve: ‘the same chance as a snowball does of surviving on a hot summer day,’” said Dr. Mangione. “When we think of the beautiful island of Jamaica, we think of beautiful days and nights. We do not think of snow and ice. It is therefore not a place where a bobsled team would ever have a hope of success. Our speaker today has demonstrated that snowballs sometimes do survive on hot summer days.”