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After stuffing his luge and sweaty warmups into a van last week at the training track in Lake Placid, N.Y., Patrick Quinn received an uplifting phone call. A sponsorship deal to put an Olympian onto millions of pieces of McDonald's packaging had just been finalized. Great news, thought Quinn, the back driver on the U.S.'s No. 2 luge doubles team. All that work paid off. No, McDonald's isn't sponsoring Quinn, who is primed to make his first Olympic team at age 39. The face on the packaging belongs to Derek Parra, a 2002 gold medalist in speed skating. Quinn is Parra's agent.
Quinn's double life is unique. Other athletes, including Bobby Orr and Renaldo Nehemiah, made the transition to sports agent after their careers ended. Bill Stapleton, a swimmer on the 1988 Olympic team, is the chief rep for Lance Armstrong. But no other active athlete represents accomplished sports figures. Quinn's clients include 2002 Olympic gold medalist Vonetta Flowers (bobsled) and bronze medalist Jennifer Rodriguez (speed skating). "I think sponsors picture me at a desk," says Quinn, whose clients won eight medals at the Salt Lake City Games. "They might not speak to me if they knew I'd just been careening down the track."
His career has taken similar turns. Inspired by the Miracle on Ice in 1980, Quinn fantasized about being a hockey Olympian. But he was a middling forward at Holy Cross, where he studied psychology. Quinn never resigned himself, however, to a life without competitive sports. As the corporate sales director for New York Health and Racquet Club, he earned $120,000 a year; in his spare time he skated in-line races, from five kilometers to 85 miles. When a speed skating coach told him he had talent, Quinn packed up and moved to Milwaukee in 1994 to train for that sport.
Quinn lived off his savings for nine years while speed skating. He finished ninth at the 2002 Olympic trials in the 10,000 meters but knew that was as good as he'd get. By then, disappointed by the lack of commercial opportunities for his teammates, he had begun chasing sponsors on their behalf, and he settled into representation as a career. "Except," he says, "I'd see those athletes on the podium, and I couldn't shake these crazy ideas."
He first tried hooking up with Chris Thorpe, a two-time medalist in doubles luge, but as their first season loomed, Thorpe abruptly called it quits. Quinn, who lives in Lombard, Ill., with his wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Alaina, then approached Christian Niccum, a 27-year-old veteran who had gone through three partners trying to reach his first Olympics. Niccum had every reason to say no, but he saw something in Quinn. "We share that dream," Niccum says. "The anthem, the flag, the teardrops. He's willing to risk everything. That's what I want in a teammate."
Risk is inherent to the back, or bottom, driver. He has to remain relaxed, even though he can't see the course. To condition his nerves, Quinn tried his hand at sky diving and bungee jumping. "You need to get yourself to a place where you're going to be scared and yet be able to control your anxiety," he says.
Quinn and Niccum had their first run together in October 2004 and two months later placed eighth in their first World Cup event, in Lake Placid. They took second at nationals behind two-time Olympic medalists Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin, and had the second-fastest run in round 2 at the world championships in Park City, Utah, placing ninth. To qualify for the Olympics, they must be one of the top two U.S. tandems on the World Cup circuit, which begins Nov. 5 in Sigulda, Latvia.
This summer Quinn received an invitation to the USOC's Athlete Summit in Colorado. "There was no name on the outside, so I wondered which client it was for," he says. "When I opened it, it was for me. I said, 'Wow, this whole thing is for real.'"
Athletes for the Ages