Bruce Wasem, the head football coach at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, was participating in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Wise when he learned that one of his former players, Hakeem Abdul-Saboor, had qualified for the 2018 Olympics as a bobsledder on Team USA.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about,” the former UVA-Wise football coach said.
The tidbit of conversation tickled Wasem’s memory. He vaguely recalled hearing a couple of years ago that Abdul-Saboor – who last played for the Highland Cavaliers in 2009 – was giving bobsledding a try, but Wasem had not given it much thought at the time. Once he pondered the Olympic news, Wasem realized bobsledding made perfect sense for the former running back and wide receiver.
“He has all you need for bobsledding,” Wasem said. “He has great speed, great strength and great agility. You have to jump and get into that sled. He’s so athletic, and all of this just fits with him. He’s a natural.”
Apparently the leaders in the world of bobsled competition thought so as well. The Powhatan native and former Highland Cavalier is now in PyeongChang, South Korea with other United States athletes seeking gold medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Abdul-Saboor is the first UVA-Wise athlete to make an Olympic team. After a stint as a competitive bodybuilder, the bobsledding community noticed Abdul-Saboor and his athletic ability when a YouTube video featuring him went viral. He began bobsledding in 2015 as a push athlete on the minor league North American Cup circuit. By January 2016, he had competed in three World Cup competitions.
Wasem is one of many on the Wise campus who are cheering for Abdul-Saboor as he pushes the bobsled for pilot Nick Cunningham in the two-man and four-man bobsled events later this month. His first race is slated for Monday.
“He grew a lot while he was here at UVA-Wise,” Wasem said. “He was happy-go-lucky and wasn’t the most self-disciplined early on, but he was always a great athlete. I remember in one crucial game he was playing with a broken finger. It was all wrapped up, but he managed to catch a pass in that big game.”
Wasem said Abdul-Saboor matured under the watchful eye of some of the leaders of the Highland Cavalier football team.
“You could just see him grow as a person and as an athlete,” Wasam said. “He was all set to have a good senior year when he tore his [anterior cruciate ligament], and that ended his football career.”
“I was not at UVA-Wise when Hakeem and his teammates made spectacular plays at Carl Smith Stadium, but I have heard many stories about his athletic skills,” Chancellor Donna P. Henry said. “I have always been a fan of the Olympics, and I can’t wait to cheer for Hakeem and Team USA. Our UVA-Wise family is proud of his accomplishments.”
Henry, administrators, staff and students are participating in a social media campaign organized by Team USA. Excitement is building on campus as social media posts and tweets about Abdul-Saboor quickly spread.
Abdul-Saboor was not available for an individual interview once Team USA landed in South Korea. He and the other 11 members of the bobsled team held a press conference on Feb. 9 and participated in the opening ceremony. However, he responded to a message from UVA-Wise and said he would “try to make UVA-Wise proud” at the Olympics.
“This journey has been crazy at times, but also amazing and I just want to thank everyone for all of your help and support along the way,” Abdul-Saboor said.