Ottawa Irish rugby big part of Bobsleigh's Rise in the 1980s
Written By: Doug Crosse
While Canadians wait to see how former Canadian rugby player and current Canada bobsledder Heather Moyse will do at the PeyongChang Olympics, her fourth, it is interesting to note she is not the first Canadian rugby player to make an impact on the world’s sliding tracks.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of players from the Ottawa Irish were regulars on the World Cup bobsleigh circuit, and in the process changed how the sport recruited its athletes.
Norm Carr was a fresh-faced 17 year old playing for the Ottawa Irish in 1977. It was a member of their rugby squad who had a brother who was into bobsleigh that led to an initial tryout at a local Ottawa-area arena.
“Chris Frank’s brother Tim invited us to Earl Armstrong arena for some push tests and my brother Jim and I did alright enough to proceed to the next level,” recounts Norm Carr from his Ottawa office, where he sells cyber-security solutions to the federal government.
“I was too young – as you had to be 18 – but Jim went to 'driver’s school' and after a couple of years he said ‘let’s put a team together,” he says with a laugh.
Ottawa was just a three hours' drive away from what was then North America’s only bobsled track, Mount Von Hovenberg at Lake Placid, New York. The team, now featuring a bristling Norm in his 20s, along with players like Mike Clarkin, Dana Rice, and Brock Fownes, with Norm's brother Jim leading the way, began to piece together a program that was essentially non-existent in the 1980s.
“We called ourselves Team Poverty,” recounts Carr. “We would take military flights to Europe, break our sled down into pieces and wedge it in to equipment trucks with the English team, hitch rides with other countries, it was all pretty basic.”
Despite the financial difficulties, the Canadians were competitive; but a number of factors would continue to stymie Norm from reaching the Olympics. He just missed the cut for the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984, and then the politics between the rugby and bobsleigh associations would see him miss opportunities with both organizations ahead of the 1987 Rugby World Cup and the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
“I was selected to play for Canada against the USA in Seattle, and they wanted me to be there on the Monday for training – and I was still in Europe,” he explains. “I told the Canadian Rugby Union I could be there Tuesday and that wasn’t good enough.”
That same year, Bobsleigh Canada wanted Carr to commit to sliding only and give up rugby. He said he had already done that by not playing for Canada, but they didn’t accept that and he was left off the squad in 1987, months ahead of the Calgary games.
That, coupled with a run-in with the then director of Bobsleigh Canada, who had given Norm a waiver to not do a deep squat at the summer testing. He ran a sizzling 3.97 second running start forty metres, the fastest on the team, but did not qualify because on the doctor’s advice he would not do the 450 pound squat that he had done the previous seven years.
“That was when I decided to forego the politics and get on with life,” he says with a heavy sigh.
Still, despite the frustrations, he had a good run with the sport of bobsleigh, at one point finishing 5th in the World Cup standings in the combined two-man and four-man results.
Norm points to brother Jim’s assertion that bobsleigh switch from big men who could push to slightly smaller athletes that were fast as the way forward.
“At times we were the fastest guys off the top, and if we weren’t it was only a few hundredths of a second which we could make up with some good driving,” he says.
Other teams would begin to buy into this new thinking, including the USA, who brought former NFL running back Herschel Walker to the sport.
Carr says Bobsleigh Canada began to bring in track athletes, but maintained that rugby players and football players were generally a better fit.
“We would hit some big tracks that had tough reputations, and the track athletes would suddenly have tweaked hamstrings until our driver had done a number of training runs,” he says with a laugh. “The rugby guys were all-in from the beginning. You just got on with it.”
Carr’s sporting life reads kind of like a Forrest Gump storyline. In 1985, Carr and his Ottawa Irish teammate Mike Clarkin were selected for Canada’s tour to Australia. Stringing together mid-week victories over regional sides, bookended with losses to the Wallabies, the pair were then offered a Rugby League contract in Brisbane following the final match of the tour.
The two players had about ten hours to consider the offer, but Clarkin, heavily sedated from a compound fracture of the jaw, needed to get back to Canada for medical treatment.
“They offered me about $60,000 Australian, but it would have taken away my amateur status for Canada and would affect my Olympic eligibility. But I often wonder what might have happened had I stayed,” he offers wistfully.
At the end of the day he maintained his efforts to conquer both sports and ultimately has no regrets. After all the years traveling the world, scrabbling together work arrangements to be away for both rugby and bobsleigh, he hung up his boots from top-level sports and concentrated on playing for the Ottawa Irish, a club that were perennial challengers for the McCormick Cup each year.
He does say though that his most satisfying years from a sporting perspective, were those playing for Canada at the World Rugby Classic in Bermuda.
“One year we beat New Zealand 5-0,” he recalls. "I was 37 but we were a competitive team back then. It was just great to play against some of the best players in the world at that time, and all of us only recently removed from test rugby.”
Of today’s generation of bobsleigh athletes, Carr says one thing hasn’t changed.
“You need a combination of good driver, good equipment and a good start,” he says.
Brother Jim continued to do well as a driver, but a crash at Lake Placid in the late 80s caused a fractured neck that resulted in a halo for six weeks, along with an early warning that this pursuit could leave some long-standing results. Another season after the injury saw a couple of more ‘turns’ – bobsleigh parlance for driving the sled upside down – which ultimately saw Jim call it a day as well.
So when you see Canada’s slick bobsleigh teams whip down the course in South Korea, think about rugby’s fingerprints in the development of the sport in the 1980s, and remember the pioneers who came before today's athletes.