To all who meet him, Tommy Barone is just a regular guy.
He passionately follows the New England Patriots, went to college, is in his sixth year as an airline pilot, loves to ski and doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.
But Barone has a secret: He’s a bobsled fan. And not just a casual fan who knows the sport exists because he saw “Cool Runnings.” He’s a FAN.
Tommy Barone can tell you exactly how many bobsled runs there are in the world and name the drivers (past and present) for most national teams. Once, while on a layover in Calgary, he decided to spend his time at the bobsled track used in the 1988 Olympic Winter Games.
“I didn’t go to a race,” said Barone, 30, a pilot with United Express. “I just wanted to check it out.”
After watching the bobsled action on TV at the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games, the kid from Rhode Island was hooked. Suddenly, he felt compelled to slide down a mountain. Without a mountain, a track or a bobsled, however, he had to make due.
“My dad came home from work and found that the cart that attached to the back of his lawnmower now had four wheels on it with a steering mechanism,” he recalled, laughing. “And I would take it down the driveway or up the street and take it down the hill, just drive it around. Have my sister push and my friends would come.”
By the time of the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games, Barone was recording bobsled races off TV so he could re-watch them while waiting for the next Winter Games. In the years since, he’s traveled to World Cup events and the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games and met and become friends with some of America’s top bobsledders, including five-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist pilot Steven Holcomb.
Yet as much as he loves the sport, Barone keeps his passion for it tucked away. At holiday parties he doesn’t bring up the potential of Switzerland’s four-man team or the speed of the run at Park City, Utah. He’d much rather talk about football, hockey or current events with the people he meets.
He learned a long time ago that a) none of his close friends want to talk about bobsledding, b) hardly anyone knows anything about it and c) there’s just no point.
“It’s awfully obscure,” he said, laughing again.
He recalled bringing it up once to someone he’d just met and being floored by the response.
“One person was talking about it and was like, ‘Oh, is that with dogs? Are there dogs in the sled or. …’ Are you kidding me? I said, ‘Contrary to what you think, there are no dogs in or around a bobsled.’ It was just awful. So who do you talk to about it? Nobody. You just like it.”
Barone said there was no one specific aspect of bobsledding that turned him into a lifelong fan. He vaguely remembers watching some sledding at the ’92 Winter Games in Albertville, then was transfixed two years later by the telecasts from Lillehammer. The 1993 Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” based on the Jamaican bobsled team, further fed his flames.
“Back then, it was the unusualness of it,” he said. “Immediately, for some reason, I loved it. There was something about the push, the four guys, the adrenaline of going down that course. And just seeing the country names on the sled. I was obsessed. I couldn’t tell you what it was. Bizarre. I just liked it.”
He also remembers as a kid going to a USA Luge Slider Search in New Hampshire where he could get the feel of sliding fast.
Yet there was no way to become a bobsledder.
“There was nothing around there; there was nothing my parents could do,” he said. “They couldn’t take me up to Lake Placid all the time. That was unrealistic. It was just one of those deals, ‘Oh, you like this strange sport. OK, that’s bizarre, but OK.’”
In the days before 24/7 cable sports networks, easy access to the internet and social media, he had to dig for information and treasured every morsel he could get.
“It’s not like I could watch it on TV,” he said, noting it was usually only televised every four years. “You like this sport that essentially doesn’t exist in your life.”
But in the late ’90s, he connected with a young bobsledder named Amanda Bird. He found her website and messaged her.
“He just sent me a message and said, ‘Hey, I really love the sport and just want to talk to someone who’s involved,’” recalled Bird, who’s now marketing and communications director for the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. “We’d go back and forth, talking about the sport, what it’s like being involved in it.”
Bird said it didn’t take long for her to realize Barone was “legit” in terms of his knowledge and passion for the sport.
They stayed in touch, trading messages, or would meet when Barone went to races.
“I’ve seen him quite regularly through the years,” Bird said. “He’s one of those people you look for in the crowd.”
Early on, she also put him in touch with the up-and-coming Holcomb, whom Barone began communicating with and following.
By no means is Barone the only passionate fan of U.S. bobsledding. Bird has met many others. But most fans found their way to the sport through some kind of a connection — an athlete from their area, for instance — or are more recent fans, able to follow the sport through modern technology. Barone came to it years ago and fell in love “with the whole concept” of the sport without having any link to it.
“Some people were born to be bobsledders, and Tommy was, and maybe missed his calling,” Bird said.
In fact, that’s what Barone felt in recent years.
Though he continued to follow the sport from afar, he said he took a sort of hiatus from it for about four years while his career was taking shape. He started wondering if all the time, travel and energy were worth it. He’d also given up on a couple of dreams, to become a bobsledder or work for national governing body for bobsled. He figured that for him, the bobsled was too far down the track.
Yet when he decided to go to a World Cup event at Lake Placid in November, a friend persuaded him to sign up for a weeklong bobsled driving school at Utah Olympic Park in February. About the same time, Bird asked him to help her as a volunteer, writing stories and doing other tasks for the federation. As an airline pilot, he said, that’s no problem — there’s always down time between flights — so he jumped at it.
Now, Barone said, he’s taking his interest in the sport to a new level.
“Just to do it,” he said of going to the driving school. “Nothing’s going to come out of it. I wish it would. Even if it went well, you have to go into a program, like a developmental program, and I’m not going to have time for that.”
Still, for the former Rhode Island kid who rolled down his driveway with his sister, the chance to learn how to drive a sled will be a blast — and bring to life an inscription by Holcomb on a photo given to him several years ago.
The inscription, on an image of Holcomb and his teammates pushing off at the start of a race, reads: “Tommy, the pilots always have the most fun."