Former student turned Olympian Axel Brown inspires students

Former student, Axel Brown, was back in the classroom last month, fresh from competing at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Axel piloted the Trinidad and Tobago bobsleigh team, having led them to qualification for the first time in 20 years. He even brought his sled into school to show the students what can be achieved.

Axel also gave an inspiring speech at the school’s Celebration of Achievement evening at the Royal Hall. “It was my first time doing any public speaking,” he admitted. “I never could have imagined standing up there, talking to students about my success. I never did badly at school, but I was never very good at exams. Getting to an awards evening like that was certainly not on my radar when I was younger. It was lovely to be there, though!”

Axel encouraged students to be open-minded and embrace new things. “My message is to just try and engage with opportunities, whatever they might be. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Harrogate Grammar School, but I wasn’t captain of the rugby team. I played basketball at lunch and PE was the highlight of my day.” He shared a vivid memory that opened his eyes to exploring new niches. “I went into school with my Dad for an Easter event in the science department. We had to make three different contraptions to protect an egg during a physics challenge, and I really enjoyed it.”

Expanding your horizons is an ethos Axel firmly believes in. “Don’t be afraid that it’s not seen as normal. It’s OK to be passionate about something that’s maybe seen as different. It doesn’t matter what other people might think. If I was really trying to fit in, I probably wouldn’t have done a fringe sport like bobsleigh. I never really had that thing that defined me. For a while I thought American football was my ‘thing’. But when I was 22, I was released by the team in the US and it felt like my world had come crashing down. Then a couple of months later, I found bobsleigh.”

Axel’s success has been compared with the ‘Cool Runnings’ tale of the Jamaican bobsleigh team, who qualified against the odds to make their Winter Olympic debut in 1988. After struggles with the GB team, Axel explored his dual nationality as his mother was born in Trinidad. He pulled together a £100,000 bid to restart Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympic bobsleigh team during lockdown.

“The real pay-off was getting to the Olympics, that was our gold medal. We weren’t in it to win it. Getting there was hard enough! For two years I was working 10-hour days to secure funding, navigating all the bureaucracy, planning and logistics. The easiest part was the bobsleigh, the actual qualifying for the Olympics and doing it. We proved everybody so wrong and our presence at the games says more than anything else.”

Axel says the bond with his teammates was also vital to their success. “The values of people come first,” he explained. “It’s so important to be genuine friends, as well as elite athletes. Especially when you’re together 24/7 in a really high-pressure environment. You have each other’s back in a death-defying sport, but then later when you’re back at the house, it’s so important to switch off and just relax as housemates.”

Being back in the UK is certainly quite a leap for Axel. “It feels like a different life,” he admits. “With bobsleigh, you’re somewhere else physically, and it’s such a different pace and lifestyle.” It made his return to Harrogate Grammar School even more special.

“Bobsleigh always captures people’s imaginations,” says Axel. “The students were all really interested, especially when it’s not a sport people think of as remotely accessible. For the students to see that someone who went to their school has actually done this, is hopefully really eye-opening. Likewise, a child in Trinidad may have watched us in the Winter Olympics and saw my brakeman, representing their country at a world-class event; hopefully that inspired them to think, “That could be me”.

Neil Renton, Headteacher, said, “We were so grateful that Axel returned to school to share his incredible story. The students and teachers were fascinated to hear how he reached the Olympics this year. His speech during our Celebration of Achievement event added something really special to the evening and inspired everyone there. We are so proud to call him an alumnus of Harrogate Grammar School.”