June 7, 2002 – Four boys from St. John's Guy Benjamin School are about to depart on an Olympic sports adventure, thanks to a former coach who ran an after-school program there a few years ago and was the nearest possible miss in qualifying to represent the territory at the Winter Games last February.
And to give the young athletes get a rousing sendoff, Troy Billington is taking them and their Olympic spirit to Tutu Park Mall Saturday afternoon on St. Thomas. He's inviting the public to come by the former J.W. space cross from the Foot Locker and wish them well from 1 p.m. "until." Visitors also can have a look at some of his Olympic competition gear, equipment and memorabilia, which has been on display there for the last couple of weeks.
Billington, 34, went down to the wire in trying to qualify in the downhill racing event known as skeleton for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Had he been successful, he would have been the first black athlete to do so. At the final qualifying event, the World Championship in Altenburg, Germany, last Jan. 26, the top 20 out of 45 competitors would get to go to the Winter Games in Utah. Billington finished 21st.
The skeleton is a chin-to-knee-length steel and fiberglass mini-sled; competitors race downhill on their stomachs, head first, using their body pressure and feet to steer. Men's skeleton had been an Olympic event only twice before, back in 1928 and 1948, and women's skeleton was introduced this year.
The U.S. Virgin Islands sent eight athletes to the games: four-man and two-man bobsled teams and two women's luge competitors. Billington would have been the ninth. In fact, he said, he did get to march with the V.I. delegation in the Olympic ceremonies.
For much of 2000 and 2001, Billington devoted himself to skeleton training and competition in North America and Europe. His background includes working at the St. Croix Boys and Girls Club as well as at Guy Benjamin School. He says he has been involved with kids and sports all of his life.
Two of the four young athletes he will be taking to Utah on Monday are 11-year old brothers Kevin and Kev Fassale, two-thirds of a set of triplets whose sister, Kayla, is the reigning St. John Festival princess. The other two are Kareem Grant, 9, and Hassani Liburd, 8. Billington says he sees a lot of promise in the four. One, he predicts, without naming names, is "going to make a definite difference in the sporting world when he gets older."
The destination for their summer sports adventure is Park City, Utah, which along with Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Games events. It being summer, there won't be any skeleton racing, but there will be some luge competition. The luge is a racing sled, but since there's no snow now, it will be luge on wheels, not runners. And there will be other fun stuff for the young St. Johnians to try, Billington said, like "aerials."
"They go down a slope and go up in the air and do a flip before they go into the water," he explained.
When the opportunity to put the youth program together came up just eight weeks ago, Billington hustled to assemble a local support base. Four senators provided funds to send the Coral Bay crew to Park City, and Rotary Club of St. John, Billy D's Special Tees, a parent of one young athlete and other private citizens stepped forward with contributions. A Utah law firm is providing lodging for the visiting athletes.
"Park City is excited that we're bringing kids — there's no way we can show up without the kids," Billington said.
Kareem's mother, teaching paraprofessional Francilia Williams, said, "I was of two minds when I first heard of it. But then I said, 'Why keep him back?' And who knows where this might lead in the future?"
Williams says her son watched Winter Olympics events on television in February and he's convinced that in Utah they will find snow and skiing, which he hopes to try.
Meanwhile, some young athletes on St. Croix also are going to get an Olympic experience this summer. One of the eight V.I. Winter Olympians, Central High school teacher and luge racer Dinah Browne, is planning to take five youngsters to a luge camp later this month — in Germany. There, too, the campers will find their sleds have modified equipment to make do without snow.
The luge is a sled on which athletes lie on their backs and race feet first. Browne set a record at the 2002 Olympic Games before she made her first downhill run, becoming the first black woman to compete in the event.
In July, Billington will be back home playing host to 10 young athletes from Austria, Germany and Canada who will travel to the Virgin Islands for a watersports adventure. "They're going to do marine stuff — snorkeling, sailing, kayaking," he said.
At least the equal of Billington's fascination with winter Olympic events is his enthusiasm for watersports. It was his work crewing for V.I. world-class sailor Peter Holmberg that opened the door for him to the winter sports. Once he got into Olympic training, Billington said, he began visiting schools in every country where he trained, to talk to youngsters about what he was doing. A group in British Columbia gave him the idea of doing a summer sports exchange program.
It's been 10 years since the first Virgin Islanders competed at the Winter Games. This week, Billington and Kareem Grant also took a touring display of racing suits, sleds, photos and other Olympics items around to various locations on St. John.
That outreach and the display at Tutu Park Mall is his way of "saying thank-you to the community, and letting them know what happened" at the 2002 Games, Billington said.
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