If you’re like me, you were probably surprised there were no local connections to the recent Olympics — beyond, of course, the few dozen Westporters who traveled to Vancouver, and the thousands who watched on TV.
Now I’ve found one.
The story starts years ago, when John Vester was a boy in Ohio. He loved watching “Wide World of Sports” — which, spanning the globe, every February found sledding events. One day Jim McKay — a Westporter, though that has nothing to do with this story — turned to the camera after another dismal US performance and said: “Kids! America needs you!”
John’s father — an Army colonel and college professor — could not buy him a $5,000 bobsled. But a luge cost 1/10 that amount, and John was hooked.
He made the national luge team, and for 5 years trained for the Olympics. He traveled to Lake Placid, Austria, Germany and Eastern Europe. Just before Calgary in 1988 he tore his rotator cuff — a bad injury, because shoulders are a key component of luge — and at 25 realized he had to move on with his life.
He entered grad school at Yale, and got a real job. Today he’s a partner/prinicipal at Ernst & Young. For the last 10 years he’s been a Westporter.
But John never lost his love for winter sports.
Several years ago he did what many former lugers do: He took up bobsled. He performed well prior to the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, but then he separated both shoulders — and, soon after, broke a rib and suffered a concussion.
His wife put her foot down — “nicely,” he says — and his athletic dream died.
In the fall of 2002 he joined the USA Bobsled & Skeleton Federation’s new board — as usual, our Olympic performance sucked, and changes were needed — and tried to put together the best pushers, drivers, coaches and sleds for the 2006 Torino games.
Despite much hard work, a variety of factors caused the board to resign — en masse — just before the Olympics. Once again, the US team failed to medal.
In the aftermath of that sporting disaster, a small non-profit was formed. John was asked to join the 4-person board. That tiny group — with just 1 paid executive director, and 1 designer-manufacturer — got right to work.
“We had a single-minded focus,” John says. “We wanted to make the best sled possible. The Germans have a massive government machine behind them, but we thought we could do it.”
Slowly, they did. Last year, Americans won World Cups and world championships.
John calls the accomplishment “very satisfying. At 47 years old, I don’t care that the medal was not around my neck. Being 1 of a few key people who made it happen was enough.”
Early the next morning, John flew home. His real job beckoned. Now — with the perspective of a few days — he looks ahead.
“Our job is to retain that capability to win,” he says. “I hope we’ve demonstrated that our approach to winning works. Now we have to keep doing it.”
He is unsure if he’ll be part of the US bobsled effort 4 years from now, in Sochi. But he’s not sitting back and basking in Olympic glory.
John also coaches a Westport Little League team. Their season starts soon. They’re going for gold.