Chip Minton is much closer to sand than snow these days. He lives in Pensacola, Florida, where there are no tall mountains or challenging hills, unless you count the dunes across the bay.
He can still return to the mountains, though, like some time traveler. His memories race back to Lillehammer, Norway and Nagano, Japan. Those were places be barely studied in geography at Southwest High School in Macon. And, suddenly, he was there.
He brought home more than souvenir T-shirts. He marched in the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and four years later in Japan, wearing the red, white and blue uniform as a member of the U.S. bobsled team.
“We all have different seasons in our lives,” he said. “It’s amazing how life can take you all over the world with just one decision: How cool would it be to be on the Olympic team? One day you’re saying, ‘I think I will try that.’ The next thing you know. you’re on a plane to Lake Placid, New York, or Calgary, Ontario. It’s 20 below, and you’re going to get into a bobsled and go down a hill.”
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He was 24 years, half a lifetime and a full head of hair ago. He’s 48 now, pushing the AARP envelope. His shoulders ache and his left hip doesn’t move like it once did.
There are other reminders. His daughter, Taylor, was 6 months old when her daddy participated in his first Olympics. She is now a second-grade teacher at the Academy for Classical Education in Macon. In November, she will marry Justin Jones, a firefighter from Warner Robins.
Minton still travels all over the map, only to less-exotic destinations. His travelogue last week included speaking engagements in Montgomery, Alabama, and Flushing, Ohio. Sunday, he is sharing his testimony at Northside Christian Church in Lexington, South Carolina. Over the past 12 years, he has spoken to school groups, churches and other organizations in every state except Alaska.
He is a member of Team Impact, a Christian ministry made up of professional athletes and former Olympians. He also works for Sports World, a motivational speakers bureau of athletes who share their life experiences.
He met his second wife, Audra, at one such event. He was at Pine Meadow Elementary in Pensacola, where she is a school counselor.
“I saw her from the stage, and it was love at first sight,” he said. “I had been single for 13 years.” They were married on the Fourth of July in 2016.
I have written many times, with a degree of certainty, that Minton is the only bobsledder in history to grow up in Bloomfield.
South Macon isn’t known as a breeding ground for Winter Olympians. They shoot hoops and score touchdowns. Ice is something that comes in your soft drink from Burger King.
In May 1992, Minton was working as a corrections officer in Macon. He was a weightlifter and bodybuilder at Conditioning Unlimited gym on Forsyth Road. He was encouraged by owner Skeebo Knight to participate in a regional tryout for the Olympic bobsled team at the Tattnall Square Academy track.
Making the team was a Cinderella story. He trained by pushing his truck up a hill. He borrowed a 16-pound bowling ball from Gold Cup to build his arm and chest muscles.
The bobsled team finished a distant 14th at Lillehammer. Four years later, at Nagano, Minton was a member of the 4-man crew that missed winning the first U.S. medal in bobsledding in 42 years by 0.02 seconds.
In between, Minton was chosen to carry the Olympic torch through Macon on its way to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He was, in the words of his mother, the “toast of the town.”
Then, he was toast. Almost.
He launched a career as a professional wrestler. He had an unsuccessful business venture selling vitamins, protein supplements and weight training merchandise.
Substance abuse nearly killed him. His marriage ended. His wife, Dannah, an art teacher, had been the family’s bread winner while he chased his Olympic dream.
He once found himself in handcuffs and hauled off to jail. He spent a month in a $26-a-night motel, trying to drink himself into oblivion.
He turned his life around with the help of the same people who believed in him from the beginning – Dannah, Taylor, his parents, Nathan and Barbara Minton, and brother, Chris, a minister at Lizella Baptist Church.
“I was very humble at the beginning. But, somewhere along the line, I got lost,” he said. “People were wanting me to be myself, and I was trying to be a professional wrestling character. Now, I look back at some of my interviews and the things I said, and I wish I could have been the person I was supposed to be. I was kind of caught up in the world.”
Minton now uses feats of strength to get the message across in his speeches. He breaks bricks. He lifts heavy objects.
“My main message is to encourage young people,” he said. “This world is so negative. I want to build them up. I want them to know how valuable and powerful their choices are. Somewhere along the line, somebody is going to try and steal their dream. They need to be big enough, smart enough and strong enough to make the best choices and do the right thing.”
A few months ago, a high school sophomore girl raised her hand during a school assembly. She had tears in her eyes as she asked Minton what to do when your mother doesn’t believe in you.
“It broke my heart,” he said. “I told her the best motivational speakers I ever heard were the people who told me I couldn’t do it.”
A high school senior once came up to him with his cellphone. Inside the case was a razor blade. The young man pulled it out and handed it to Minton.
“He said he didn’t need it any more,” Chip said. “He had been thinking about taking his life. I told him the life I have now is incredible. It’s not perfect, but I would not be here if I had taken my life that day back in June 2003.
“There are hundreds of stories just like that. They contact me on social media and tell me about being bullied, contemplating suicide, drugs and alcohol and not believing in themselves. It’s impactful when I slow down enough to think about everything I’ve done.”
He will be watching the Winter Olympics when they begin Friday in South Korea. He has not seen the movie, “I, Tonya” about figure skater Tonya Harding, who was with him in Lillehammer. Scenes from the film were shot in his hometown of Macon.
Last week, he got a phone call from Randy Jones, one of his old bobsled teammates – an icy blast from the past.
“We haven’t talked but once or twice over the last 20 years,” Minton said. “We reminisced about the old days. It’s kind of crazy we got to do all of that.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.