Shanwayne Stephens: Jamaica's bobsleigh pilot is an RAF man who's got the Queen's back

The Jamaican bobsleigh team is back at Beijing 2022 - meet the pilot of both the two and four-man team out to steer them to new heights, and read how he gave the Queen a giggle.

By Ken Browne
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

Shanwayne Stephens and the Jamaican bobsleigh team are back at the Olympics, and ready to compete.

'Cool Runnings' might be the legacy this team has to live up to, but they're out to "melt the place" at Beijing 2022 and forge a new identity and Stephens is key to their success.

The United Kingdom Royal Air Force (RAF) regiment gunner pilots both the two-man and the four-man sled and just getting to the Olympics has been nothing short of a miracle.

"We're a small nation and we achieve great things from little resources," Stephens tells Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.

Their training, pushing a car around an industrial estate in Peterborough, England, during lockdown went viral.

"We were completely locked down over COVID and we wanted to make sure that we were 100 percent prepared to be able to qualify," says Stephens.

"So we had to come up with creative ways of getting the training done. So myself and Nimroy (Turgott, his brakeman), we were locked down in my house together, so we decided to go out and push my fiance's mini up and down the street."

He even got to tell the story to Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II when his RAF regiment were on a video call with Her Majesty.

"Well, I suppose that's one way to train," she said with a chuckle.

"It was once in a lifetime opportunity to actually speak to the Queen," Stephens goes on, "I think she's now a big Jamaican bobsleigh fan. I said I'll send her a signed T-shirt."

Speaking with Olympics.com as a team, the fun vibes are there with Jamaica's bobsleigh team, it's all joking and laughing, but there's a serious side too, and achieving Beijing 2022 qualification during a pandemic is a serious achievement.

'Shan' as his teammates call him, tells it:

"The first time our team really came together was 18 September last year. It was the first time we could push together as a team because Covid has made it very difficult, so we've had to train in separate locations.

"So to achieve what we have achieved in such a small period of time shows the the calibre of the athletes that we have now."

Cool Runnings? "We're more than a movie"

You can't talk about Jamaican bobsleigh without talking about Cool Runnings, the nickname of the Calgary 1988 team that started the Jamaican bobsleigh revolution, and the title of the Hollywood film about their journey.

The 2022 team respect the originals, but are out to forge their own identity and leave a new legacy.

"We don't mind the movie," Stephens says, "but we just want to show that we're more than a movie, we're actually fierce competitors and we're out there to do really well and to put on a really good performance at the Games."

For the first time ever Jamaica will have three different teams pushing off at an Olympics: Four man, two man, and the women's monobob. They were a tiebreaker from having four different teams in Jamaican colours for the Beijing Games.

"It's fantastic," says Shan, "it was almost four sleds at the Games, the female team only missed out on a tiebreaker. So it shows you the leaps and bounds the federation has come over the years and it's only going to get stronger with the more backing we get."

Chris Stokes, one of the original four from the Calgary 'Cool Runnings' 34 years ago, is now President of the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation and Shan has high hopes for the future.

"We're hoping we start to get a little bit more backing from organisations to help us progress forward. If we can do this with limited resources, imagine what we can do with actually strong backing."

But hang on a minute, how does a guy who lives in Peterborough become pilot of the Jamaican bobsleigh team?

Nimroy Turgott (left) and Shanwayne Stephens after training, June 2020 in Peterborough, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

Shanwayne Stephens: Making of a bobsleigh pilot

Now 31, Stephens was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK with his mum 20 years ago.

Unlike his teammates Ashley Watson, Matthew Wekpe, Nimroy Turgott, and Rolando Reid who have sporting backgrounds ranging from athletics to rugby to weightlifting, Shan came to bob through his time in the British military.

"I actually got into bobsleigh through the Royal Air Force," he says.

"So in the Air Force, we use bobsleighing as adventure training and personal development, and I literally just saw a poster on the wall one day that says 'Fancy having to go at this?'

"[I] went to the trials and then I've literally been bobsleighing ever since. I started bobsleigh in 2015 with the Air Force and then had the opportunity to trial with the Jamaican team in 2017.

"And then that's when I met Nimroy. So we basically started bobsleighing at the same time together and I've been with the team ever since.

"I started off as a brakeman pushing for Jamaica and transitioned into driving in 2019 for the team."

Bobsleigh: "It's a massive trust game"

When a bob pushes off and starts blazing down the ice track at up to 150kph, the team has to move as one and believe in their pilot.

Introducing himself at the beginning of our chat, push athlete Ashley Watson said: "My job is to push the sled faster, jump in, and pray he keeps us safe," with his hand on Stephens' shoulder.

"It's a massive trust game and we trust each other," Shan says.

"I get to the top of the hill and I'll look at the boys and I know they're going to absolutely roast me off the top of the hill, like you can see in their eyes.

"And that confidence in them gives me confidence in driving the sled down as fast as I can. So yeah, this is one of them things where the trust goes both ways and we definitely trust each other."

Idris Elba to play Shanwayne Stephens in Cool Runnings 2?

So if this Jamaican team does take off at the Beijing Games, who will play the team in the next Hollywood hit film?

"Shotgun on Idris Elba," says Shanwayne Stephens.

But his brakeman Matthew Wekpe's having none of it: "No, no, no. Idris Elba is not that short. He's my height. That's me. I'm Idris!

"Shan would be like RoboCop, or somebody short... Kevin Hart!"

Their story will be coming to a screen near you when bobsleigh training begins on 10th February 2022.

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