Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers
Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.
The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.
Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.
“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”
Hachigian looked at Gadley -- undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds -- and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.
“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”
No problem, Gadley said.
A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert -- Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion -- became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.
“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”
Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah, Lauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.
“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”
Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.
“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.
Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.
“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.
“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”
Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.
“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”
The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).
“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.
“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”
Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.
“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.
“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”
Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.
The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.
“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”
It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.
Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife, Laurie.
Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.
“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”
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