America's best lugers are smoothing out the bumps en route to Salt Lake City
It may be a new season, but at the luge World Cup series opener last Friday in Calgary, the U.S.'s Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin—the country's best sliding duo—were feeling a familiar ache, one they know they have to conquer. Days before the 1998 Olympics, Grimmette was fighting what he thought was a stomach virus; Martin was suffering from a knot in his back. "As soon as we finished," Martin recalls, "the pain was gone." Grimmette's stomach? Ready for pizza. "We were the first U.S. lugers favored to win the Olympics," says Grimmette, who now recognizes nerves as the source of those pre-Games maladies. "Once we got the bronze, I had no more symptoms."
Grimmette, 30, and Martin, 27, who finished third in Calgary, know they need more than bronze in Salt Lake City to heal what ails them. Grimmette offers an encouraging prognosis. "We made mistakes because we were going so fast," he says of last week's runs. "We know we have the speed."
They knew mat four years ago. Before Nagano, U.S. lugers had never won an Olympic medal, but hopes were high for 1998. Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer had finished atop the '96-97 World Cup standings, and with five wins in seven races, Grimmette and Martin were on their way to doing the same in '97-98. "We felt invincible," says Martin.
Yet he and Grimmette finished behind silver medalists Thorpe and Sheer and champions Stefan Krausse and Jan Behrendt of Germany. The Germans and Sheer have retired. Thorpe is struggling with a new partner. Grimmette and Martin are still together and still the best U.S. hope.
Grimmette, who began sliding at age 14 in his native Muskegon, Mich., and Martin, who started, also at 14, as a street luger in Palo Alto, Calif., paired up on the ice in 1996. Compatibility is no given in luge. The top slider is the larger man, in this case Grimmette (6'1", 200 pounds). He lies supine on the smaller slider—Martin is 5'8", 160—and steers with his feet The bottom slider helps guide the sled with leans of his shoulders. A pair must anticipate turns in sync at 90 mph in races timed to thousandths of a second.
While trying to establish themselves, the two Americans paid for expenses with odd jobs. Grimmette built sheds and painted houses. Martin worked the food cart on a Lake Placid golf course. "I was an accountant once," he says. "Oh, and I washed dishes."
For years the U.S. lugers were a source of amusement for their competitors. "Our turn would come," Martin says, "and the Europeans would line up to watch for crashes." When Grimmette and Jon Edwards, his partner at the time, earned a World Cup bronze medal in Germany in the early 1990s, the entire U.S. team went into a bar and drank beer out of the duo's trophy until the wee hours. "These days, if we don't make the podium," Grimmette says, "we're disappointed."
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Last spring, while the track world was proclaiming Reston, Va., high school senior Alan Webb the savior of the mile in the U.S., Webb's coach at South Lakes High, Scott Raczko, was quietly assuring people that Webb would be more than a miler. Raczko talked about Webb's blistering 10-mile training runs and suggested that Webb could run a two-mile in 8:25 (11 seconds faster than the national high school record) if he raced at that distance. "People are going to be surprised," Raczko said.