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Former Olympian Has Inspirational Message for SJU Students

Monday, April 14, 2014

Three-time Olympian Devon Harris encouraged St. John’s students to courageously follow their dreams when he visited the Queens campus on March 31 as part of the University’s Caribbean Writers Series.

Close to 150 students gathered at the D’Angelo Center to hear the former bobsledder’s inspirational message. Harris was a member of the first Jamaican bobsled team that took part in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, and whose experiences inspired the 1993 Disney film, Cool Runnings.

After participating in the Olympic Games in Albertville, France, and Nagano, Japan, Harris became an author and motivational speaker. He has toured the world hoping to encourage and inspire young people with his improbable success story. He also founded the Keep on Pushing Foundation, a NY-based nonprofit whose goal is to provide practical solutions to challenges faced by disadvantaged children.

Introducing Harris, Robert Mangione, Ed.D., R.Ph., provost of St. John's University, observed that the Olympian’s story of perseverance, dedication, and courage offers inspiration to students, many of whom must overcome staggering odds in their daily lives. Kathryn Hutchinson, Ph.D., vice president, Division of Student Affairs, applauded the many University departments and student organizations that came together to make the event possible.

Harris said people often wait too long to pursue their dreams, thinking everything needs to be in perfect alignment first. "They wait because there is a 'T' that isn’t crossed. We didn't wait," he said of the team. "We developed our skills until we got better and better." During their initial training in Jamaica, the team improvised using makeshift materials. They didn’t see their first real bobsled until they arrived in Lake Placid, NY, for more intensive training.

Drawing upon many years of athletic training, the teammates readied themselves in under four months for their first Olympic Games. Though they crashed during one of their four runs, they earned the seventh fastest start time in Calgary that year. They returned to Jamaica as national heroes.

Harris admitted he was initially fearful about embarking on his celebrated journey, but living in a ghetto as a child, he desperately wanted to escape. He joined the army, where he was recruited for the national bobsled team. "There's no such thing as a person without fear. It's how we respond to that fear that determines how much we succeed. When you face your fear, you win."