Winter Olympics Preview, February 1998
Hold the Ice
Now that America's top lugers have proven they can match the Europeans drink for drink, they have something to prove on the track
By Julian Rubinstein
When American lugers Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer won their first World Cup doubles event, in the blighted formerly communist town of Sigulda, Latvia, in February 1995, it was a night to remember — if only they could. The legendary German duo of Stefan Krausse and Jan Behrendt, whom they had edged out by nine-hundredths of a second,
dragged them down to the tiny bar at their hotel and fed them shots until Thorpe got sick and Sheer could barely stand. "It was like an initiation," says Sheer, 26, of the hazy memory. "Up until then, they'd never really talked to us. Now we hang out together."
THE DOPE ON
The Contenders: In men's doubles, U.S. hopefuls Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer face stiff competition from German veterans Stefan Krausse and Jan Behrendt, Italy's reigning gold medalists Kurt Brugger and Willy Huber, as well as strong-starting U.S. teammates Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin. As they have for the past two Games,
the Frick and Frack of men's solos, Germany's diminutive Mr. Popularity Georg Hackl and Austria's lanky but standoffish Markus Prock should take gold and silver, respectively. U.S. big boy Wendel Suckow could upset or take bronze. Among the women, U.S. veteran Cammy Myler faces Tyrolean T-shirt artist (and '94 gold medalist) Gerda Weissensteiner; the
six-foot-tall, flaxen-haired German knockout Susi Erdmann; and Jana Bode, her less glamorous and harder-training teammate.
Watch For: Snazzy new suits. Sans the traditional rubbery coating, luge uniforms don't slide quite as far in a smash-up — and they accept multi-colored dyes, a big image leap from the old East Bloc monotone look.
One More Thing: In 2002, Salt Lake City might host a thrill-inducing sledding sibling: skeleton, a belly-flopping, head-first style that's all the rage in Europe and scares even veteran lugers. "I wouldn't be caught dead doing it," says Team U.S. emeritus Bonny Warner. "Crash and your face is dragging along the ice."
The Contenders: After his four-man team was disqualified in Lillehammer for allegedly heating their runners, driver Brian Shimer might help make amends by bringing home the first U.S. medal in 42 years; fellow U.S. driver Jim Herberich is also a contender in the two-man sled. The competition? Canada's Pierre Lueders and
Germany's Christoph Langen, back strong from a torn Achilles tendon, in the two-man race, and '94 gold medalist and former Stasi informer Harald Czudaj in the four-man. Back for another drubbing, the Disney-flick-inspiring (and Red Stripe-sponsored) Jamaican rastateam. "They won't finish in the top 15," snipes U.S. coach Steve Maiorca, openly peeved at the
lovable underdogs' continued spotlight grab.
Watch For: Smiley American faces. Shrugging off years of internal bickering, morale-sapping celebrity ringers (remember Herschel Walker in '92?), and barely-there funding, Team U.S. is riding high on the Bo-Dyn, a hot-rod-esque new sled that's been beating the ne-plus-ultra European models all year.
One More Thing: Shimer's number-two sled pusher, former prison guard and off-season pro wrestler Chip Minton, didn't make the cut for "American Gladiators." (Three-time Olympic bobsledder Prince Albert of Monaco, however, is a pal.) — SUSAN ENFIELD
That the 1992 Olympic gold medalists have embraced Thorpe and Sheer speaks volumes for the American duo's accomplishments. When Thorpe and Sheer bulleted their way to glory, winning the 1996-97 World Cup, they made history by becoming the first non-Europeans to take the overall title. From the U.S. perspective, their performance was nothing short of a miracle. In the 17 years
since the U.S. Luge Association formed in the basement of a Lake Placid delicatessen called Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, American sliders have mostly raced as if they hadn't digested the meal that preceded the meeting. Except for occasional successes, most significantly Wendel Suckow's unlikely win at the 1993 world championships in Calgary and Duncan Kennedy's solid World Cup results
in '92 and '93, the U.S. has been notorious for choking in the big events. Needless to say, no American has ever won an Olympic medal in luge.
Suckow will give it one last college try in Nagano, but hopes will be riding on Thorpe and Sheer, who have slowly but steadily risen through the international doubles ranks since they began racing together a decade ago, finishing 12th in the '92 Olympics and fifth in '94. They began their final ascent to the sport's top tier in 1996, when they scrapped their four-year-old sled
for a sleeker model and readjusted their body positions so that the sled and not Thorpe's outstretched feet trip the electric start timer, saving them as much as one-tenth of a second, an eternity in luge.
It's hard-won success for two athletes whose sport garners little but smirks in their home country and whose days are spent lying back-to-belly on a sled traveling 80 miles per hour. "Some people think what we do is strange," admits Sheer, who rides on bottom. "But really we're just traveling the world sleigh-riding."
Still, there are dark moments, moments when the pair fantasize about abandoning luge for its hipper and more popular urban stepson, street luge. Woozy from toiling so long in obscure frozen ice chutes, Thorpe and Sheer see the bastardized road game as a career opportunity. "I'd like to see if I could get into the X Games," says 27-year-old Thorpe. "Though I wouldn't be going
for the whole daredevil persona thing."
But first Nagano and perhaps, finally, the love of a nation. They already scored the luge equivalent of a Wheaties box when the Orlando branch of the Official All Star Cafe recently announced that it would erect a life-size display of the pair, complete with video clips. Still, they shy away from the suggestion that they could be one race away from immortality. "We didn't get
into this for fame or fortune," says Sheer. "Until you've been down the ice yourself, you'll never understand."