Peter Donohoe grew up running track in Ireland. He was a sprinter, a hurdler, and a decathlete, and he was good enough to dream about making the team Ireland sent to the '96 Olympics in Atlanta. But he missed the cut which is what led him to switch sports.
“So the word got out that the International Bobsledding Federation was looking to encourage other nations to get involved in the sport of bobsledding," Donohoe said. "It's cross-training in the absolute extreme, and people will think of Cool Runnings and the Jamaican bobsled team. [Ireland] not being known for [snow] at all, but certainly being known for doing things that are a little bit crazy.”
I met Peter Donahoe on recent evening at the Boston Center for Adult Education. He was preparing to explain the sport to whomever showed up, and he did not seem even a little bit crazy. He did seem passionate about bobsledding which explains why after his exposure to the sport at the two week training camp in Austria that he attended at the invitation of Bobsledding Federation, he shifted his focus to the Winter Olympics.
“Here I am in my early 30s, discovering a whole new sport," he recalled. "So it was very exciting. And then we got the attention of the Irish Olympic Committee, who figured we're not just out here trying to have a go and see what this thing's like, but maybe we're trying to put a bid together, you know. We've got some of these top athletes out here risking life and limb to try to possibly qualify for the '98 Olympics. And I'm afraid it did-it absolutely worked.”
Without much experience and lacking state-of-the-art equipment, Pete Donohoe's Irish two-man sled stood no chance against the Italians, the Germans, the Swiss, or the Canadians at the '98 Games. He said with a smile that he couldn't remember whether they finished 30th or 35th — they finished 35th. There were 37 sleds in the event. But he came back for more in 2002 and finished 26th.
“Not bad," he said. "A year later I finished 17th in the World Championships in Lake Placid, 2003, and then I did a little bit of coaching in 2004, and if I had it to do over again, no regrets. Obviously it would have been nice if I'd started in that sport five or 10 years earlier, but no regrets. It was wonderful.”
It was Donohoe's enthusiasm for the sport that inclined him to offer to explain it, and he arrived at the Adult Education class carrying sled runners in a wooden case that looked as if it might serve for a cutlass. He had a helmet as well, festooned with a shamrock, and the uniform and shoes he'd worn as an Olympian. The turnout was a small – two students, actually – but Pete Donohoe's enthusiasm was undimmed as he launched into an explanation of how the driver of a bobsled has to make the instantaneous transition from a physical exertion to utter concentration.
“So the sport of bobsledding, and what I enjoyed about driving was I had to go from grunter to zen," he said. "So I'd do the rehearsal and do the preparation in my brain. I'd be visualizing with my hands, and then five minutes before the race, I had to go, ‘all right, let's get our grunt on.’”
For the driver, getting the "grunt" on is followed by trying to achieve oneness with the icy shoot down which even a losing sled travels at more than 80 miles an hour.
“You would sprint as hard as you possibly can, you give it everything you possibly can, you're grinding up the ice," he said. "You load, you hit your handle, the adrenaline's pumping, and before I even grab the steering – I had a coach say to me, before you grab the steering, take a breath, now grab, and you're into turn one.”
The lucky few in attendance that evening left the class with a clearer understanding of the bobsledder's challenge. When the class was over, Peter Donohoe told me that certainly he was looking forward to watching the competition in Sochi, though Ireland has not sent a bobsled team. It made me wonder whether Donohoe's experience had left any sort of legacy for the sport in his homeland.
“I wish I did," he said. "Have I left a good memory for people to think about? Yes. I am actually actively looking at trying to find some athletes, good, competitive track athletes, to possibly do a bobsled school next November. If we don't keep that going, the sport dies.”
The bobsledding competition in Sochi, absent the Irish, begins on Sunday.
This segment aired on February 15, 2014.