Meet Duke's only winter Olympian

Randy Jones '92 switched from track to bobsledding.
Writer: 
February 7, 2018

To tell the story of Randy Jones ’92, you need to include two phone calls. The first came to his apartment at 1905 Erwin Road—walking distance from Uncle Harry’s General Store and the Central Campus pool—in the spring of 1991. The Dallas Cowboys wanted to chat about a possible tryout.

But the offer didn’t take with Jones. “I just told the guy, ‘You know, I’m really not even interested in football anymore,’ ” says Jones, who finished his senior season with the ninth-most kick-return yards in the nation. His first love was the track, where he would set the school standard in the 60-meter dash and trail only Dave Sime ’58, M.D. ’62 in the Duke record books for the 100-meter dash. An injury, though, derailed his efforts to make the 1992 Olympic Trials in June.

The second phone call took place in track coach Al Buehler’s office, weeks before the Summer Games in Barcelona. The man on the phone posed a question: “You wanna go to Europe?”

The catch: Jones’ international opportunity wouldn’t come during the Summer Olympics— but during the Winter Games. The U.S. Olympic Committee wanted him to try out for the bobsled team, a prospect that was less exciting at the time. “About twelve people watched the Winter Games,” Jones says, “and two and a half million watched the Summer Games.”

His father—citing the neglected Cowboys opportunity— talked Jones into making the twelve-hour drive from Durham to Lake Placid. He learned how to push, showing promise during the dry land sessions. But after winning the competition for side pushers that Thursday, Jones skipped the remaining competitions the next day and hit the road back to Durham, unhappy with the forty-two-degree July weather.

The locations improved. Soon, he was traveling to Monaco for Prince Albert’s summer push competition next to the famed yacht harbor. “Man, if this is bobsled,” Jones recalls thinking upon his arrival, “I’m all in.”

His first Olympics in 1994, besides the opening ceremony, proved unmemorable. But four years later, in Nagano, Japan, Jones experienced heartbreak: His four-man bobsled team finished two hundredths of a second from a bronze medal. “We had the fastest start, and...we don’t know what happened,” says Jones. It was a clean run, with none of the “boongy-boongy-boom,” the colloquial term for when “you hit every wall going down,” as Jones describes it. “Everything felt perfect.” The unsuccessful run—to this day—doesn’t make sense.

Salt Lake City in 2002 seemed to portend a similar fate. After the first day of competition, Jones recalls, his team led the field. The next day, though, was “like sixty degrees,” and the sled—which can’t be adjusted after a certain time before the race—was equipped with cold-weather runners. The team fell back to third, on pace to drop off the podium with one attempt left.

Improbably, it started snowing. For every team, navigating the track, Jones says, was now comparable to “trying to drive through a bunch of Styrofoam.” His foursome squeezed past the second U.S. squad, and the Switzerland team, the final remaining threat, slogged through its worst run of the Games, handing Jones’ team the silver medal.

That medal was the first for Team USA in the bobsled in forty-six years. Jones and teammate Garrett Hines became the first black American men to earn a medal at the Winter Olympics. Jones remains Duke’s only Winter Olympian.

“You don’t want to be, ‘What if, what if?’ ” Jones says, mentioning that he still thinks back to the Cowboys’ phone call, wondering what might have happened had he decided to try out.

His regret makes some sense: In track and bobsled both, every run counts. Then again, when it comes to answering potentially life-changing phone calls, one for two isn’t bad.

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.