They were the first Winter Olympics ever held in Canada, and the rollicking 1988 Games in Calgary provided more than their their share of huge names, compelling competitions and even a few fascinating novelty acts.
There was Alberto Tomba, the heartthrob macho Italian skier known as Tomba La Bomba, winning two gold medals. There was luminous East German figure skater Katarina Witt, also the gold medalist whose pre-event news conference attracted more photographers than an Oscar-night red carpet. There was hard-luck American world champion speed skater Dan Jansen, favored in both his races until he sadly slipped and fell twice, the same calamitous week when his older sister died from leukemia back home in Wisconsin.
These also were the Games when the cool-running Jamaican bobsled team made its debut, dazzling the international press corps with its exuberance, not to mention freebie souvenir sweatshirts and pins for anyone who asked. And finally, in one of the more bizarre stories in Olympic history, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, an endearing English bloke wearing thick Coke-bottle glasses, somehow qualified as the first Brit ever to compete in ski jumping, finishing dead last by a staggering margin in both the 70- and 90-meter competitions. He eventually turned that dismal failure into a lucrative post-Olympic career as a pitchman and radio personality.
Totally under the radar that year was another intriguing story that went mostly unnoticed, even on its home turf. That would be the six-person Puerto Rican ski team, representing the tiny Caribbean U.S. territory of 3.4 million with no snow and no hope for an Olympic medal, let alone a top 25 finish in any of the four Alpine disciplines.
Yet, more than 25 years later as the world readies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, two members of that ’88 ski team, then and now living in the Washington area, say it was the grandest time of their lives. They knew they had no chance to climb a podium or hear the Puerto Rico anthem, “La Borinqueña,” but were proud to represent their commonwealth and compete against some of the world’s greatest athletes.
Siblings Kevin and Mary Pat Wilson made that Puerto Rican Olympic ski team, even though they both went to school in Loudoun County as teenagers. But both had been born in Puerto Rico, two of the six children of Jim and Barbara Wilson, who also owned Dresden Farm outside Middleburg. Jim Wilson’s development and real estate business, like that of his father before him, was based in Puerto Rico, and the family lived there for more than 20 years. All six kids were born on the island.
According to Olympic rules, anyone born in a particular country, or with a parent born in that country, was eligible to compete. Puerto Rico first participated in the Olympics in the 1948 Games in London. Marilu Otero, a spokesman for the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee, said that because it is not one of the 50 states, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico is permitted to field its own team. If a Puerto Rican athlete wins a gold medal, the Puerto Rican national anthem, not “The Star-Spangled Banner,”is played.
Butch Lee, a prominent basketball star at Marquette University, grew up in Harlem, the son of Puerto Rican parents. In 1976, he played for the Puerto Rican national basketball team that very nearly upset the gold-medal-winning U.S. team, losing in a preliminary round by a point on a night Lee scored 35 points. He became a national hero who still coaches basketball there.
The Wilson kids also clearly met the qualifications to compete for Puerto Rico. Their family didn’t move back to the United States until Kevin was a sophomore at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg and Mary Pat was entering fourth grade at Middleburg’s Hill School.
“If you looked at me back then, I had blond hair and blue eyes,” Kevin Wilson, who now lives in LaPlata and works in the family business in Washington, said in a recent interview. “I was Irish on one side, German on the other. When my parents said we were moving to the U.S., I was crushed. I considered myself a true Puerto Rican. I spoke fluent Spanish, with a Puerto Rican accent. I would think in Spanish, dream in Spanish.”
These days his little sister, now Mary Pat Guest, splits her year between Middleburg and Sarasota, Fla. She recently turned 50, teaches a fitness class four days a week and has two daughters. The older, Amanda, is the No. 1 player on the Syracuse University tennis team.
When Mary Pat and Kevin met with the island’s Olympic Committee officials many months before the ’88 Games, “they told us, ‘Hey, you were born and raised here. Why not represent us?’ ” she said in Middleburg.
Still, getting a ski team organized was not easy. Though Puerto Rico had competed in the Winter Games before, most recently luger George Tucker in 1984 in Sarajevo, no Puerto Rican had ever skied in the Olympics. Tucker’s participation, in fact, was the spark that ignited the effort to form the first ski team.
Félix Flechas, then an environmental engineer working for the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver, says the idea originally came from Walter Sandza, his EPA colleague and good friend. Sandza was watching the ’84 Games on television and was startled to see Tucker, the lone member of the Puerto Rican Olympic team that year, carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremonies. While watching the competition, Sandza also noticed that some lesser-known skiers were content to get down the hill in one piece, occasionally even snowplowing down the course like rank beginners.
Sandza and Flechas were both recreational skiers, often whooshing down slopes in the nearby Rocky Mountains.
“Walter thought, We could do that,” Flechas said by telephone from Denver. “We knew we certainly couldn’t compete at the elite level, but we also thought we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves, either.”
Flechas, 33 at the time of the ’88 Games, had been born in Puerto Rico but lived all over the United States because his father was in the U.S. Air Force. Sandza, then 31, was born in New Jersey to a Puerto Rican mother and learned to ski as a child vacationing in the Poconos.
Flechas and Sandza wrote to the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee about the ski-team possibility. They were told they needed to show racing experience before they could become sanctioned by the International Ski Federation. Both men became active in a high-level masters series and earned the needed results. Not long after, they got the seal of approval from Puerto Rico, as well.
This all occurred about two years before Calgary. Kevin Wilson was living in Colorado, working in construction and was a part-time — his words — “ski bum.” One day, he was at the Keystone resort in the Rockies riding up a chairlift when he had a chance encounter with Flechas and Sandza. He said he had overheard them talking about a Puerto Rican ski team and was immediately intrigued.
Mary Pat was about to graduate from Western State University in Colorado and also loved the idea of taking time off to train and compete in Calgary. After all, the Wilsons had been on skis as toddlers, and the family had a home in the Poconos and often took ski vacations in Colorado. All the children were fine athletes, and there was to be another Olympian in the family, her older brother Tom, representing Puerto Rico in the three-day equestrian competition at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Flechas and Sandza, meanwhile, had read in a Colorado business publication that Keystone was starting to market to Hispanics and other minority skiers. They met with Keystone president Jerry Jones, who offered to provide unlimited lift tickets and coaching from Keystone staffers including Hank Kashiwa, himself a former U.S. Olympic skier.
The team soon found themselves training with the highly competitive Summit County Race Team, with many SCRT alumni going on to compete at the highest level. A few months before the Olympics, Flechas and Sandza were joined by 17-year-old Jason Edelmann, who also had been born in Puerto Rico. Edelmann, the son of a U.S. Marine, was in high school in Detroit but stayed with a family near Keystone to train with the team.
Once in Calgary, the team stayed with most of the other athletes in the Olympic Village at the University of Calgary.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you’re in the Olympics. Where are you from?’ ” Mary Pat said. “I would say, ‘Puerto Rico,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, isn’t that odd?’ Then I had to stick up for myself.”
Although the Wilsons and some of their teammates were white athletes representing the mostly Hispanic/Latino commonwealth, they didn’t experience any backlash from Puerto Ricans. “I don’t think anyone has ever felt that way toward any of our athletes,” spokesman Otero said. “We have many Anglos born here, and there would be no resentment toward them, not at all. Look at our national basketball team: Most of them were not raised here. They are children or grandchildren of women who were born in Puerto Rico, and people loved the basketball team.”
“I asked him, ‘Who in Puerto Rico can ski better than you?’ ‘Nobody,’ he said. ‘That’s my point,’ I said. ‘So you do belong here.’ ”
Kevin Wilson, now 55, recalled a day of training up on the mountain when he met German ace Markus Wasmeier, who would win gold in the giant slalom at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
“I started talking to him, and he asked me where we trained,” Kevin Wilson said. “I told him we sit on the beach and read ski magazines. He liked that. I asked him if he minded if we trained with him, and he was great. I got a lesson from Markus Wasmeier that day. The American team also thought it was cool that we were there. They actually helped us.”
Mary Pat was the only woman on the nine-person Puerto Rican Olympic team that year, and she remains Puerto Rico’s first and only female Olympic skier. In the ’88 Opening Ceremonies, she had the honor of carrying the flag but remembers wondering if it was worth it when they sat the flag-bearers at the top rim of the stadium on a windy, brutally frigid day.
“We had the coldest seat in the house,” she said. “But it was an amazing experience. At the time, I’m not sure I realized what an honor it was. I appreciate it more now than I did then. But being in the Village, meeting all the athletes, seeing people you knew were the big stars. You would go out at night; there was dancing. A skier from Luxembourg got flirty-flirty with me one time. Then he asked me if I liked to cook and clean house. That was the end of that.”
Kevin Wilson competed in three events, finishing a respectable 43rd in the slalom and 61st in giant slalom and not completing the course in the super G race. His placing in the slalom was the best among any of his teammates, and erased any nagging doubts on whether he belonged in the Olympics.
His parents came to Calgary to watch their son and daughter perform, and Jim Wilson recalled a lunch he had one day with Kevin before the competition began.
“He said, ‘You know, Dad, I feel a little strange being here, because I’m not that good,’ ” Jim Wilson said. “I told him that the Olympics had the three or four best skiers from every country, and I asked him, ‘Who in Puerto Rico can ski better than you?’ ‘Nobody,’ he said. ‘That’s my point,’ I said. ‘So you do belong here.’ ”
The team’s participation in the Olympics went relatively unnoticed on the island commonwealth it represented. “We didn’t get much attention in Puerto Rico,” Kevin Wilson said. “None of the newspapers covered us while we were there. They certainly didn’t send anyone to Calgary that I know of. Maybe they didn’t want to take a chance on getting embarrassed.”
Mary Pat missed the second to last gate in the giant slalom and was disqualified after what she recently described as a “really good run, probably middle of the pack.” Her slalom result is listed in the record book as “did not finish,” but, she said, “I still have great memories.
“We weren’t contenders, but we gave it everything we had,” she said. “I’m still so excited I did it. When I watch the Olympics now, I can really relate to the other athletes who are there just to compete and try. I know what that feels like. And it still feels great.”
Leonard Shapiro is a retired Washington Post reporter, editor and columnist who covered the 1988 Games.
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