LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Quick. For $200 and a trip to the bonus round, who was the U.S. flag bearer for the opening ceremonies at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia?
Phil Mahre, the skier? No. Scott Hamilton, the figure skater? No. If you're having trouble, don't worry. The U.S. Olympic Committee didn't do so hot, either. When the athletes voted at Sarajevo, the committee announced the winner as, uh, "That luge guy."
"They had no idea who I was," said Frank Masley, 27, a mechanical engineering student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "No idea."
Luge racing has always been in trivial pursuit of recognition. Few Americans participate in the luge. Most don't even know if it's a noun or a verb. The United States never has won an Olympic luge medal. Its highest finish is ninth. What kind of sport is that? They don't even have an all-star game.
Masley is a pioneer among American male lugers. He is the current national champion. Next month in Calgary, he will participate in his third Olympics. Early in 1987, Masley finished second in a World Cup race at Lake Placid. It was the highest international luge finish ever for an American man.
Fingers are crossed for Calgary. But Italy and Austria and the Eastern bloc countries are the Lou Brocks of international sliding.
"We're definitely on the outside, not one of the favorites," Masley said. "But last year we won five World Cup medals. That's four more than we ever won before. It shows we can do something in international competition. I think the men sliders have a definite chance of a top-10 finish."
This is Frank Masley's 12th luge season, and his last. He will retire after the Calgary Games. And he'd like to go out on top.
"I'd like to get back in the top 10, and once I'm there I'd like to move a lot closer," he said.
Closer to a medal.
That would make the end of his career as happy and improbable as the beginning. Luge is not something you stay awake thinking about as a kid. Especially when you're a kid in Newark, Del., that celebrated haven for winter sports.
Masley was 16 when he got hooked on the luge and the bobsled after watching the 1976 Olympics. A neighbor wrote to the U.S. Olympic Committee and received word that open tryouts would be held in Lake Placid in December. Masley had $700 saved up from a paper route. If only he could convince his parents.
Thomas and Clara Masley were skeptical. What parents wouldn't be wary of their son's climbing aboard a 4-foot by 22-inch sled, feet hanging over the front, head sticking out the back, and hurtling himself down an icy trough at 70 miles an hour? It's not exactly like asking for the keys to the car.
"They didn't like the idea," Masley said. "They didn't want to come up here at all. It was cold, and while I was sliding, what were they going to do?"
Finally, his parents relented. Masley hitched a ride to Lake Placid with his brother-in-law.
"He wanted to try it, too," Masley said.
After that beginner's program, Masley returned to Lake Placid in January of 1978 for a national 18-and-under competition. This time he finished first and won an expenses-paid trip to Europe.
"My dad said it was a good sport after that," Masley said.
Luge is one sport where it's okay to lie down on the job. In fact, it's mandatory. The slider rides six inches off the ground, supported by a fiberglass seat that reaches from shoulder to knee. One other thing: no steering or braking mechanisms are allowed.
That doesn't mean the slider carries a rosary and holds on for dear life. The 50-pound sleds run on a pair of steel blades that are attached to flexible runners. Steering is accomplished by subtle twists of the shoulders and legs that dig the blades into the ice.
The idea is to look over the top of your stomach coming in and out of turns. The curves themselves are negotiated by feel, head back, toes perfectly pointed. Even on a smooth course, your head feels as if it's strapped to a jackhammer.
Lugers dismiss bobsleds as merely runaway taxis -- one guy driving and three guys along for the ride. The luge requires more precise driving. The slightest twist of the body can throw a ride into a rooster tail.
"The whole key to going fast is to be relaxed," Masley said. "Hopefully, when you come out of the curve, you're finished steering and you can go down the straightaway without any corrections. You can't be stiff. If you're stiff and you hit a bump, you'll just skid out."
The other key to going fast is the steel blades. The more they are filed, the less friction they produce, and the faster the sleds run. The guys who win these races have their blades filed like Ginsu knives.
As in bobsledding, many luge races are won at the start. The 1,000-meter courses are typically run in 45 to 46 seconds, so there's not much margin for error. At the starting gate, a luger rocks back and forth in the sitting position, grasping handles that protrude from the ice. At takeoff, he catapults forward and paddles along with spiked gloves until he reaches cruising speed. Then the sled becomes a recliner. After 100 yards, a luge already is swooshing along at 45 mph.
"The top guys seldom let anyone catch them on the way down the track," Masley said. "It comes down to the start."
Masley made his first Olympic team in 1980 in the men's doubles. But a freak crash spiked his chances. For the 1984 singles competition at Sarajevo, Masley designed his own sled and finished 14th, never running more than 0.9 of a second behind the leader.
Still, his proudest, most emotional moment came before the Games began. No one from the U.S. luge team had ever been a flag bearer.
"As soon as we walked through this archway, the crowd started cheering," Masley said. "It was the greatest reward I've had in my years of sliding."
The USOC gave no instructions, but his teammates gave him the standard warning: Don't dip the flag. He didn't.
After the '84 Olympics, Masley enrolled at Drexel, which allows him to race in the winter and attend school in the spring and summer. He has a 3.3 grade-point average in mechanical engineering. For Calgary, Masley took a biomechanics course to help improve his start. He also has a personal strength coach and has melted his body fat to a lean 6 percent on his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame.
Currently, he is running as the No. 2 U.S. sled. His highest international finish this season has been 15th.
"There is no reason I shouldn't have the fastest start," he said. "It's purely physical. The equipment's not involved."
The finish will take care of itself. Hundredths, even thousandths of a second will decide the medals. That's what Frank Masley's 12-year luge career will be compressed into.
"Top 10 is definitely a realistic goal," he said. "I'd like to see something click. I'd like to see it all come together."
Then he might become the answer to another trivia question. And no one would be calling him "that luge guy" anymore.