Bobsleigh star, GB's third fastest ever sprinter - but what drives Joel Fearon?
The people who do it are living your dreams, but it doesn’t alter the fact that professional sport is hard, entailing sacrifice, pain, pressure and desolation that few of us experience on so regular a basis. Spare a thought, then, for poor Joel Fearon, who does two of the buggers: athletics and bobsleigh.
The former is Fearon’s original passion. He personal best for the 100m of 9.96 seconds, puts him third on Great Britain’s all-time list behind Linford Christie and James Dasalou, but at the moment he’s preparing for his second Winter Olympics – in Sochi, his four-man crew finished fifth.
Fearon first made the move thanks to his coach, Michael Khmel, who moved to bobsleigh “then dragged me along”. Their conversation was short: “He said ‘you will be doing this, this is good for you’.”
And Khmel was right. Physically, the sports demand similar assets, but the benefits of combining them extends to the mental side too. “It keeps my brain competitive summer and winter,” says Fearon, “keeps me on my toes, gives me a little bit more to fight for.”
Unusually for someone in his position, Fearon was not a particularly good athlete as a teenager. “It took me a few years to blossom,” he says. “I wasn’t really the best in the school, I wasn’t really the best at anything … but I wanted to be.”
The desire to get better led him to Loughborough, where he sought a coach and found Khmel. “He basically said, ‘you do have something, I don’t know how much you do have, but you’ve got something.’ And he’s sort of worked with me ever since and here I am. Now I’m better!”
Fearon is certain as to what that something was, and is: hard work. He stayed patient, refused to make excuses and did his best every day in every circumstance.
Bruce Tasker and Joel Fearon of Great Britain compete during first run of the 2-man Bobsleigh BMW IBSF World Cup at Olympiabobbahn IglsGetty Images
He has no doubt where he learnt these values: “100% my dad. My dad comes from a very, very poor background and now he’s quite successful. He’s gone back to Jamaica and he’s living the life that he wants, wouldn’t believe that he’s had, and through seeing what he’s done with his life I believe that I can do something with mine … dunno what, but something!”
Ralph Fearon left school at 11 – “reading and writing wasn’t his thing, what he couldn’t do academically, he did with sweat” – values which he inculcated into his five sons and two daughters. From 13, Joel worked in one of his two Caribbean restaurants, “and by the time I was 16 I was near enough running the place”. Meanwhile his mother, Jackie, a nurse – a former international nurse of the year – filled in the gaps. “They were always out working, trying to make a better future for us, and that just rubbed off,” he explains.
Suddenly it is less surprising that Fearon chose to augment athletics with bobsleigh, which he calls “a hardworking sport”. Whether competing in the two-man or the four-man sled – he does not yet know his schedule for PyeongChang – his job is to use his explosive power and speed at the top of the run, transfer it to the sled as quickly as possible, “And at that point I give it over to the drivers, give them as big a head start as I possibly can and from there they’ll try and win the race.”
This is harder than it sounds because unlike many winter sportsfolk, Fearon is no adrenaline junkie. “It is scary, yes,” he declares. Some tracks are particularly scary ... I’ve got all the safety equipment and my helmet’s on very tightly.”
As such, his first encounter with the event was stressful: “It kept going faster, at no point did it stop so it was just going faster and faster as the track was going on and I never had anxiety in my life until that point. My friend at the bottom, John Danes, had to come and help me get my helmet off and rub my back, make sure I was alright, but after that I did my first competition, it was all history and I loved it.”
It is partly because of the danger inherent in such behaviour that he finds the sport so affirming. “You’re with your boys, everyone trusts everyone, and everyone knows what everyone’s there to do … I really enjoy competing in bobsleigh more than I enjoy competing in athletics, it’s just such a buzz. You’re with your team, you’re fighting for so much, it’s just such a massive privilege.”
Bruce Tasker (R) and his team mate Joel Fearon of Great BritainGetty Images
In the meantime, Fearon will hurl himself into this one – as a man who lives his life in italics, the enthusiasm is palpable. “Representing my country, not a lot of people get to that. This’ll be my second Olympics and for a small guy from Coventry it’s a big deal … I’m always grateful every time I get to put my flag on, every time I get to see this is what I do and this is who I am.”
But even more than that, his aim is to pass on his pride in his father to the next generation. “It’s to make my family proud of me and make my sons see what you can do with your life. I do get to provide for my family, but leaving a legacy for them is far more valuable.”
The plan is for that legacy to feature some kind of precious metal. “We’ve got everything that we need to win a medal,” he declares, “so I’m just excited to get it going, and let’s get it done!”