CALGARY, FEB. 28 -- An unorthodox trick discovered in practice this week nearly propelled the U.S. No. 1 bobsled team to an Olympic medal today.

Brent Rushlaw's four-man sled was just two-hundredths of a second slower than Ianis Kipours' Soviet entry when times for four runs over two days were compiled after this morning's final run.

Rushlaw wound up fourth as Kipours took the bronze behind gold medalist Ekkehard Fasser of Switzerland and silver medalist Wolfgang Hoppe of East Germany.

It was the best U.S. finish in the event since a bronze medal in 1956 at Cortina, Italy, and it wasn't until the bitter end today that it was clear Rushlaw hadn't equaled the performance of 32 years ago.

Kipours' sled was the last to go off. Sitting third after starting third in the last heat of 25 sleds, the U.S. team was on tenterhooks, waiting through 22 runs. Finally, the Soviets took off and, as their times came up on the scoreboard, the Americans' dream ended.

Said pusher Mike Wasko of the ordeal: "It was like an expectant father waiting for the baby." He and his teammates spent the waiting time praying for the bright sun to beat down hard enough to melt some ice and slow the track, he said.

But the disappointment of Rushlaw, Wasko and teammates Hal Hoye and brakeman William White was tempered by a final placement higher than anyone expected.

Part of that was by accident, Wasko said. Driver Rushlaw injured his back in two-man bobsled competition last week and was having trouble pushing off the four-man sled at the start.

So the team decided at a meeting to have him jump into the sled about three steps earlier in the push-off than he normally would. The effect was magical.

Rushlaw, 36, a beefy 205 pounds, apparently had been holding back his younger, trimmer teammates. Wasko said when the driver got in early the rest of the crew felt the sled "practically pulling us along."

Start times got faster, and Rushlaw's driving throughout the competition stayed first-rate.

"He just was driving so smooth, I don't think we hit a sidewall all the way down," Wasko said.

Fellow U.S. driver Matt Roy, whose No. 2 sled was a disappointing 16th, agreed that Rushlaw was "driving as well as anyone out there."

Rushlaw avoided the press throughout the Games, particularly since controversy rocked the team with football star Willie Gault seeking a spot on one of the racing sleds, which he never got. Today Rushlaw disappeared again, but not before issuing a statement through a team spokesman.

"I was really disappointed losing by two-hundredths," he said. "You can think back to places you may have lost that much {time}.

"But I also feel good because we did the best ever," said Rushlaw, whose top previous finish in four Olympics was a sixth at Sarajevo in 1984. "Maybe we'll get 'em in four years."

Less upbeat after their performance today were members of the Jamaican bobsled team, whose sweatshirts and T-shirts have been among the hottest-selling trinkets in trinket-happy Calgary.

The Jamaicans, new to the sport, capsized and smashed hard onto the ice halfway down their first run. They left spectators gasping as their sled skittered along on its side at 60 mph, the helmeted heads of its occupants banging into the sidewall.

All four managed to walk off the track on their own, although driver Dudley Stokes was later taken to a hospital for observation.

Gold medalist Fasser's sled lay third coming into today's final two runs, but he knocked Hoppe out of the lead with a slick first run of 55.88 seconds, a track record, and held on with a more modest 57.43 on his final run for a 3:47.51 total.

Hoppe, the defending Olympic champion, had runs of of 56.77 and 57.34 for a 3:47.58 total, seven-hundredths off the pace.

And Kipours, the two-man bobsled gold medalist last week, dropped from second to third place with a 56.41 and 57.85 for a final tally of 3:48.26, those two precious hundredths better than Rushlaw's total.