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Willie's running again -- downhill, on a bobsled

Willie Davenport is training for the Olympics again, and one thing's for sure: If he makes it he'll be moving a lot faster than he did in any of his other four apperances.

When Willie won the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at Mexico City in 1968, he was clocked at 13.3 seconds, which figures out to about 18 1/2 miles per hour. That seems like standing still, however, compared to the speeds of better than 100 mph he's reaching these days.

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Of course, Willie isn't operating entirely under his own power this time. On the contrary, he and his teammates are hurtling down the famed Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobsled course in hopes of qualifying their four-man sled for the US team that will compete here next month in the Winter Olympics

The crew, which consists of driver Bob Hickey, No. 2 man Jeff Jordan, Davenport in the No. 3 spot, and brakeman Jeff Gadley, has been the fastest one in the preliminary trials too. They've been getting the best starts (the start is vital in this event), and just last week they set a course record with a 1:01 .71 clocking for the approximately one-mile long run.

Now it's down to the final trials, with the best 10 sleds from the earlier competition battling it out for the two spots available in the Games. And Willie Davenport, who knows a lot about competing even if he's still something of a neophyte in this particular sport, has no doubts about the outcome.

I" feel our team is the best US team," he told me. "If you think small, you wind up small."

Davenport's surprising switch to the bobsled (and when you know a few background facts it really isn't quite as strange as it seems at first glance) began last spring.

"Being a member of the US Olympic Committee and the Athletes' Advisory Council, I talk to the competitors in various sports," he explained. "One time some of the bobsledders were talking about putting together a sled that would combine the best push team and the best driver. They were looking for good athletes, and I decided to try out."

Willie had certain other motivations too. For one, there's the chance of being only the second athlete ever to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Games (the late Col. Eddie Eagan was the first, winning the light heavyweight boxing gold in 1920, then making the same sort of switch Davenport is attempting and riding on the US sled that won the four-man bobsled event here in 1932). Another incentive is the opportunity for Davenport and Gadley, who are both black, to break a racial barrier.

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"We'd be the first blacks in the Winter Games," he said. "That's something to shoot for -- especially with the idea that it would help open up these sports to more blacks."

Finally, there's the question of money. When I asked Willie if he thought he'd have trouble adjusting to the relative anonymity and team concept of the bobsled after spending his whole previous athletic career in the spotlight he replied:

"Hey, I had all that glory and individual stuff -- the four Olympics, the medals, and all -- but I was never able to capitalize on it financially. Maybe with this on top of it, can."

Davenport spent much of last summer training to get into shape -- mostly running and working with weights.AT that time he had still never even seen a bobsled -- and in fact the first time he ever laid eyes on one was when he arrived in Lake Placid about six weeks ago.

"The first time I watched one go down, I was kinda scared," Willie admitted -- and no wonder. The 180 degree turn and 70 foot drop of the famous Big Shady curve, the crack-the-whip effect of the even more dangerous Zig Zag, and the speeds which are estimated to reach anywhere from 100 to 150 mph would be enough to give anyone pause.

"I'd be lying if I told you there wasn't still always a little fear," he added. "But you get going training, you get psyched up, and you want to do it.

"Also," he said with a smile, "I see gold!"

Based on recent Olympic performances, that might seem like undue optimism, for the United States hasn't done too well lately in this sport it once dominated. The US four-man sleds finished 1-2 in both 1928 and 1932, and came back after World War II with a 1-3 finish in 1948, a silver medal in '52, and a bronze in '56. The two-man sleds, with a pair of gold medals, a silver, and three bronzes, did similarly well in the pre-war and immediate post-war periods. Since 1956, however, no US sled has won a medal of any kind, as the competition has been taken over by the European teams.

The presence of both Davenport and Gadley, however, Illustrates a changed concept among American bobsledders in their attempts to improve the country's recent mediocre international performance. Too many times, US sleds were losing because of slow starts -- where track men like Davenport and Gadley (the New York decathlon champion) could made a difference.

"The idea now is to get some really outstanding athletes," explained Hickey, a member of a long-time bobsledding family from this area. "It used to be all 'buddy-buddy,' with drivers picking their friends and everybody out mainly to have a good time. But we could see the Europeans starting to get ahead by putting top athletes in there, and we knew we had to do the same thing if we wanted to have a chance."

So Hickey, whose older brothers Jim and Bill were on two Olympic teams each, put together such a sled -- and he shares Davenport's confidence that things will be better for the United States this time.

"I'm carrying on the family tradition, but there's one big difference," he said. "I'm going to get a medal!"

If he does, of course, Davenport will too -- but that's the only medal Willie has any ideas about this year. He insists now, at least, that he has no thought of continuing the amazing track career which made him the only US athlete (and one of the very few in the world) to compete in running events in four consecutive Olympics (Tokyo, Mexico City where he won the gold medal, Munich, and finally Montreal, where as a supposedly over-the-hill veteran who had already pulled one surprise by coming back from an injury to make the US team he amazed everyone by winning the bronze).

"I still think I'm the only man alive who can beat Renaldo Nehemiah," the positive-thinking Willie said in reference to the current world record holder in the 110 meter hurdles. "But I'm not ready for all that gruelling training.

"I've definitely ruled out any thought of the hurdles," he added. "My interest right now is in the bobsled. That's the big challenge to me."


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