Jamaica international Matthew Wekpe has taken a sabbatical from rugby to chase an unlikely Olympic dream in Beijing.
Wekpe, who has represented the Crocs in both sevens and 15s under his mother’s surname Wilson, is part of the first Jamaican four-man bobsleigh team to qualify for the Winter Olympic Games since 1998.
The Caribbean nation were the 24th and final four-man team to claim their place at this month’s Games, a remarkable achievement for a squad that first raced together in September.
Brakeman Wekpe, in fact, had never been on ice let alone in a bobsleigh when an SOS was put out to UK-based Jamaican rugby players less than 17 months ago.
Shanwayne Stephens, who pilots both the two and four-man teams, lives in Peterborough and unable to train with his Jamaica-based brakeman due to the COVID-19 pandemic, asked the Crocs sevens team manager whether any of his players would be willing to help.
“I was like, ‘Hey, why not? I'll give it a go’,” Wekpe told World Rugby.
“We had a little trial where a few of us tried out and after that I was in the team and three or four weeks later, I'm literally in a World Cup race. You know, I'd never seen a bobsleigh before!”
“It’s a big high”
Wekpe admits it was “crazy” to stand at the top of a World Cup bobsleigh run for the first time, but he soon realised he had found a sport he adored.
“The first time I went down, it wasn't too bad,” he added.
“It was the second time around, [when] I knew what to expect. I was more nervous, but I knew after that second time, the adrenaline rush, I loved it.
“It's an amazing experience, it's a big high.”
It seems as well that his background in rugby has helped Wekpe cope with the demands of such a high-octane sport.
“I'm quite quick and I think taking the knocks and the bangs in rugby definitely helps you being in the sled because you do take knocks and even crashes,” he said.
“You know, I've been in some crashes and it's not nice. But I think having the body and the conditioning to take those hits and be able to get back up and go again has definitely helped.”
Writing their own story
Jamaica travelled to China with their biggest ever Olympic bobsleigh team, having qualified for the two-man and women’s monobob – in which Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian finished 19th – as well as the four-man.
It is their return in the four-man event that has garnered most attention, however, as it brings back memories of their appearance at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, which inspired the film ‘Cool Runnings’.
Wekpe will carry a plastic egg with him during Jamaica’s runs in Beijing in a nod to the Disney movie’s fictional brakeman, Sanka Coffie.
But the current brakeman and his team-mates are determined to write their own story when the four-man event gets underway on Wednesday.
Wekpe describes the squad as “one big family” and asked what binds them together, he said: “The fact that we all wanted that end goal, we wanted to make history.
“We wanted a lasting legacy to say that we're not just ‘Cool Runnings’, you know, we're not just that movie. We're a team that is there to compete and we're there to be serious.
“I think we all kind of came together and we didn't really know each other that well, but we all had that end goal.
“And I think, you know, it's part of the culture as well. We don't have much as a nation, but we work together when we need to, and that's definitely helped.”
On his and the team’s hopes for this week’s event, Wekpe added: “No team works hard to get to the Games and doesn't push for the gold and we'd love the gold.
“But if we're not going to get the gold, we'd love a top 10. But ultimately we want to leave a lasting legacy and the best position that Jamaica's ever finished in a four-man event is 14th and if we can equal that or better that then that would be a massive achievement for us.”
Wekpe’s Olympic commitments ensured that he was not part of the Jamaica squad that competed in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series last month.
He was able to watch their matches in Malaga and Seville, though, and remains committed to winning his place back for the Commonwealth Games 2022 and potentially, Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022.
“I spoke to the coaches and some of the other players and I said, ‘Getting to the Olympics has always been a dream and that's what I was going to push for, and it happened,” Wekpe added.
“So, I will finish the Games and I'll take three weeks off, but I will be coming for the Commonwealth Games for sure.
“That is my aim to get into that team and represent Jamaica again this year – and hopefully in a World Cup [too]!”