Word is, he did a flip off a 50-foot bridge into the Saranac River in upstate New York as the ice was going out. He was once thrown off the U.S. bobsled team, in part for drinking too much. And folks in the Adirondacks still talk about the time he drove from Saranac Lake to Long Island—350 miles—in a '57 Chevy without any brakes. "Went right through all the red lights," says Brent Rushlaw, the hero of these tales. "Toughest part was the toll booths."
Rushlaw's real shy, real quiet and real trouble. He makes his living cooking food, painting houses, waiting tables and chopping wood. But he lives to drive a bobsled. And nobody in America, and almost nobody in the world, drives a two-man bobsled better than Rushlaw. Now, there's more to bobsled racing than driving—there's aerodynamics and athleticism, too—but Rushlaw's specialty is knowing the ropes, which, incidentally, are what you use to steer those 800-pound bullets.
Once upon a time U.S. bobsledding consisted of a bunch of beefy guys from the Adirondacks alternately sliding down the Lake Placid run and crawling out the tavern door. Well, Rushlaw is the last of that breed. He looks like what bobsledders used to look like and drinks the way bobsledders used to drink. Actually, with the big, black beard he wore until recently and his size 42 stout body and Mount Van Hoevenberg nose, Rushlaw could pass himself off as one of Santa's helpers—if Santa needed someone to lean on the reindeer a little. A couple of weeks ago, when Rushlaw got back from the U.S. team's pre-Olympic European tour, he shaved the beard. Now he looks like one of Zapata's helpers.
Rushlaw has been the national two-man champion five times and will go after his sixth title this week in the Olympic Trials at Lake Placid. He has won 18 of the 26 two-man races he has entered in the U.S. In the '80 Olympics he was in the running for a bronze medal after two heats, but he blew his third run when he hit the wall and ended up sixth.
This year U.S. sledders will be lucky to get a sixth at the Sarajevo Olympics. The design of the American bobs is years behind that of the East German and Soviet machines, and the U.S. push times—the moments it takes to get a sled started down the run—are half a second slower than the best. America's highest hopes, such as they are, lie with Rushlaw and Bobby Hickey, last year's national two-man champion. Both happen to be on the outs with the governing body of the sport, the U.S. Bobsledding Federation.
This is Rushlaw's last stand. He is 32, has a family to support and is tired of the hassles. The bobsledder's lot isn't an easy one. He's almost always in debt, unless he can find sponsors to buy his sled for him and pay for its upkeep and shipping. Rushlaw was fortunate enough to get Budweiser to purchase him his current machine. In the past, his sponsors have included the Dew Drop Inn, Duffy's Cedar Post, Dagwood's Pizza...you get the idea.
Rushlaw has had his share of misadventures. In 1982, after winning the U.S. two-man title, he was kicked off the national team. He got the boot on a trip to Europe. Rushlaw, who had been doing well in races at home, left his successful sled in Saranac Lake and picked up a new one from a designer in Cortina, Italy. But the new sled was a dud, and Rushlaw began losing badly and became discouraged. He broke training, drank in public and finally asked to be sent home. "I felt like everybody was against me over there," he says. The federation suspended him for the rest of the season.
He ran into trouble again on this year's European jaunt. At the Sarajevo Cup, which was run on the Olympic course in early December, Rushlaw refused to race, partly because the U.S. team trainer, a high school football and track coach from Peru, N.Y. named Mike Beauvais, wouldn't let him put a Budweiser sticker on his sled. Lederle Labs was sponsoring the U.S. tour and had primary advertising rights on the American sleds. But Rushlaw pointed out that Bud had paid for his sled, and that if it was so important to have a vitamin logo on every sled, how come the U.S.A. III machine was allowed to race without any stickers at all?
By then the Sarajevo race already had probably gone down the tubes for Rush-law, because he'd lost his regular brake-man, Jim Tyler. Tyler, 22, had been fooling around in a Sarajevo gymnasium. He went up to dunk a soccer ball, hung on the rim for a while and then let go. The rim snapped back, shattering the glass backboard, and shards of glass rained down on Tyler, whose arms and chest were cut in many places. Tyler was taken back to the hotel, where John Cogar, a veterinarian who pushes on Hickey's four-man team, sewed him up. The U.S. team did have a doctor, Merritt Spear, but he's a coroner in Peru. "I have more experience in sutures," said Cogar. Tyler has now recovered.
On the bobsled run of life, Rushlaw, who grew up in Saranac Lake, has had to right himself many times. When he was 10 his father was killed in an automobile accident. Poncho Rushlaw left behind four kids. "We were so much trouble," says Brent. His mother, Betty, tried to raise them, but she had a nervous breakdown, so Brent at various times lived with his grandparents, in a foster home and with friends.