Sable Otey got tired of faking it.
The Memphis native is an African American woman who will be supporting the Women’s Bobsled team in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The 1993 Disney classic film “Cool Runnings” tells the unlikely but inspiring true story of Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsled team. Surely, as a rare person of color in the sport, she had seen the movie, right?
“I never saw it until two years ago,” Otey chuckled. “People would ask me about it and I’d play along. But eventually, I got tired of pretending so I watched it. It’s a good movie. We’ve watched it many times with my son.”
Otey says things like that so matter-of-factly, it’s easy to miss the details. Let’s roll that back: At 31, Sable Otey is about to become the first African American MOM to bobsled in the Winter Olympics.
“This is crazy,” she said. “To be able to compete with these world-class athletes? As a MOM? I did it!”
So if it wasn’t “Cool Runnings,” how the heck did Otey find her way into bobsledding of all sports?
Otey grew up in Binghampton before becoming a track-and-field star at George Mason University. Her original hopes were to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics, but that was right around the time she and her husband became pregnant with their son, Amar’e. With a new child and her career as an educator pulling at her, she almost let go of her Olympic dreams.
Fast forward to 2015. That’s when her godbrother, Christopher Kinney announced he wanted to try out for the U. S. Bobsled team – and he encouraged Otey to do the same. “He always said I was a great athlete, I should give it a try,” Otey said. “I wasn’t particularly confident in myself then; I was one of those people who lived off someone else’s faith in me. He believed I could do it, so I decided to give it a shot.”
However, as fate would have it, Kinney could not make it to the tryouts. But by that point, a once-skeptical Otey was all in on her new sport and went anyway. “I’d paid my fee. And I’m a competitor,” she said. “So I said to myself, I’m going to go and really try.”
Tried and succeeded. Otey made the cut to join the U. S. Women’s Bobsled team. And though she will be traveling to South Korea, she may not get to compete on the track – some members of the team go in a support role, to help transport equipment or to replace another injured athlete.
“There are so many of us,” she said. “It’s more than one person or two people. It really is a team sport.”
But lest one think the life of an Olympic athlete is glamorous . . . well, it’s not, Otey said.
For one thing, size matters. To actually be able ride in the sled, competitors must hit fairly specific weight requirements. “The sled doesn’t lose weight,” she joked. “YOU do.” For Otey, that meant binging on carrots, cottage cheese and oatmeal until she hit her target weight.
Then there are the other physical demands. Bobsledders are also responsible for maintaining their sled and other equipment, including sanding their sled down — which can take 2-3 hours depending on how many teammates are working on it at a time. They also have to transport the sled — which includes not only bringing it to training and competitions, but actually lifting and carrying it themselves.
“We have to pick the sled up. Flip it. Put the runners upside down,” she said. “We’ve had to load the sled on the truck and take it off. It’s tiring just talking about it.”
And then there are the financial burdens. Otey said that though she gets reimbursed for some expenses by Team USA, she and her teammates still have to come out of pocket for almost everything – airfare to training sites, hotel accommodations, meals and even those much-needed post-training massage sessions.
“There’s a lot of turnover on the bobsled team,” she said. “Very few people come into the sport with a lot of money, and those who do can afford to do it full-time. But I’ve had to make sacrifices to participate in the sport.”
So why does she persist? The sport is not convenient or cheap. She still has to maintain her day job as a teacher, while trying to take care of a husband and family. Bobsledding takes a considerable amout of time, effort and energy. Why does she keep doing it? What’s the payoff?
“I can’t really explain it,” Otey said. “I believe my purpose is to be a blessing to someone else. I want to help people overcome limitations, to show people what happens when you believe in yourself — because for a long time, I didn’t (believe in myself).”
And she knows she’s being watched. She carries with her a sense of responsibility to the family members, students and community who are cheering for their hometown Olympian.
“I get email and messages from people who say I motivate them,” she said. “I’m very hard on myself. I didn’t ask for all this pressure. But I have to realize that this is why I’m here. I tell people what I’ve been through, what I go through, to show them I’m no different from them. If I can overcome, they can overcome.
“I never thought I’d be a world-class athlete. I never thought I’d be the first African American mom to be a bobsledder,” Otey added. “But here I am.”
Otey departs for South Korea next week. If you’d like to offer financial support, visit her gofundme page: https://www.gofundme.com/wr4jhnp3