Alone with the skis - The tale of Jerry Bujakowski and the Winter Olympics
At the 1964 Winter Olympics edition held at Innsbruck, Austria, India had a representation. It was the first time an athlete from India was participating in such an event – Jeremy Bujakowski, known by his nickname ‘Jerry’. He was born to a Polish father in Lithuania before acquiring the citizenship of India, courtesy of his father’s involvement in building of oil refineries in India and subsequently becoming its naturalised citizen.
Jerry was sent to the United States for higher education after his preliminary education at St. Joseph’s North Point, Darjeeling and St.Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Language barriers coupled with occasional cultural jolts – did not deter his love for skiing. He started out skiing in Boise, Idaho and very soon he was offered a full scholarship at the University of Denver.
Apart from mere representation at the 1964 Olympics, he had his share of his injuries which threatened to shorten his career in skiing. At the Olympics downhill event he suffered a broken back and concussions. Damaged internal haemorrhages along with a badly fractured leg ended his maiden Olympics. It was an uphill battle to complete recovery.
At an interval of every six months since that dreadful accident, Jerry went through four operations in that period – each time surgeons re-tied the nerves in order to prevent bleeding. He was eager in spite of this set back and resumed training at the Mammoth Mountains with one ski and his left leg under a cast! All these efforts – in order to regain fitness and participate in the next edition at Grenoble, France.
By the time he became fit enough to compete (though not completely healed) he had met Janet Evans; popped the question and was married to her. At this juncture, Jerry also had the opportunity to meet Dave McCoy, former coach of the US ski team and also the owner of a resort at the Mammoth Mountains. Dave took a keen interest in Jerry which resulted in him being the mentor/coach at the Grenoble Olympics.
On the day of parade of nations, Janet accompanied her husband Jerry – who held the Indian flag proudly. He was the ‘sole’ representative of India once again at the Olympics in the capacity of an ‘athlete’.
Apart from being the athlete, he was also India’s ‘Chef de Mission’ ( head of the delegation) and aptly appointed his American wife Janet Evans as ‘Chef d’Equipe’ – to coordinate in matters related to technical aspects of the sport. I am not sure what her credentials were apart from the fact that her father, a real estate broker comes from a skiing family and her first meeting of Jerry happened on the mountains.
In total, Jerry participated in three of the skiing events – Downhill, Giant Slalom and Slalom. He finished with a rank of 53 at the downhill event, 65 at the giant slalom event and did not advance further at the slalom event.
I am not sure how many in India remembered when he went into race that day in Grenoble. A family from San Diego woke up early that morning (4 am) in order to catch his friend Jerry on his downhill run. ABC cut to commercial at the time of Jerry’s run. A furious lady, mother of Jerry’s friends called up the local ABC station; endlessly she tried to catch hold of the responsible person who made the call to show commercials. She did manage to get hold of somebody at New York city and by the time she returned to her children to the living room, the sportscasters on the mountainside of Grenoble were making an announcement about them replaying the run of the ‘Indian’ skier, Jerry Bujakowski for his fans in San Diego, California!
India had to wait a good 20 years before there would be any more athletes at the Winter Olympics. Since 1988 with the exception of 1994 Lillehammer Games, there has been consistency even though the numbers never swelled beyond four for a single edition.
Sochi Olympics 2014 would have been an occasion to celebrate for the Indian contingent. The event would have coincided perfectly with the 50 years celebration of an Indian athlete participating at the Winter Olympics. There is one problem though – no visibility of the India flag during the event.
The four athletes who have qualified for the event from India has a four-time Winter Olympic participant by the name of Shiva Keshvan, who incidentally will be participating for a fifth time at the event.
The decision to hold the IOA general elections on February 9th and not before the start of the event (7th Feb is the deadline set by IOC) is appalling to say the least. No doubt, the four athletes will participate but with the generic flag – under the Olympic flag.
It would have been interesting how Jerry would have reacted (he passed away in 2010) to the current state of mess the Indian Olympic Association is in and for the incumbent officials failing to look at the bigger picture of the athletes.
Nevertheless, I will celebrate the occasion and writing this article is one such way to acknowledge the man, Jerry Bujakowski and the painstaking efforts he took to make India become a Winter Olympic nation.