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U.S. Wins First Luge Medals
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 1998; Page C1

 From left Chris Thorpe, Gordy Sheer, Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette celebrate the first medals in luge for the United States. (David J. Phillip/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 13 — Gordy Sheer shares a sled with Chris Thorpe and a house with Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin. Here at the Spiral this afternoon, he shared the victory podium with all of three of them, as the Americans hugged and laughed and poured champagne down each other's throats in celebration of the first American Olympic medals in luge.

After a disappointing season, Sheer and Thorpe stunned the field in the men's luge doubles with a silver-medal showing, just edging out their pals Martin and Grimmette, who finished with the bronze. The veteran German team of Stefan Krausse and Jan Behrendt won the gold with a track-record time of 50.513 seconds in their second run, and a total time of 1:41.105. That finish, which came on the last run of the afternoon, narrowly beat out Sheer and Thorpe, who were timed at a combined 1:41.127. Martin and Grimmette came in at 1:41.217.

"We broke through the barrier," said Sheer, who admitted that he and his teammates felt the pressure of America's long-running lack of Olympic success in the sport, especially because he and Thorpe were World Cup champions in 1996-97 and Martin and Grimmette recently clinched the 1997-98 title. "And now it's up to everyone else who comes after us to one-up us and win the gold."

 Mark Grimmette (top) and Brian Martin did not seem to mind sharing the podium with pals Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe. (Beath A. Keiser/AP)
Martin estimated today that all of 200 people compete in luge in the United States, and Sheer joked about how the Europeans — the sport is dominated by the Germans, Austrians and Italians — used to laugh at the Americans behind their backs at international events. America, after all, only had one refrigerated luge track (the one built in Lake Placid for the 1980 Olympics) before the recent construction of a track in Salt Lake City in preparation for the 2002 Games.

Not that these guys care about being conventional. Mojo Nixon, the alternative rocker, is their unofficial team captain. Howard Stern is their media outlet of choice. Doubles luge in particular is often mocked because both competitors lie on the sled in what seems like an awkward position — on their backs, with one, the driver, atop the other. The driver watches the course and steers with his feet; the man on the bottom helps control the direction of the sled by shifting his body weight in concert with his partner.

"I don't know about American heroes," Sheer said, laughing, when it was suggested that he and Thorpe were about to get their 15 minutes of fame. "I've been the butt of a lot of jokes, and I imagine there will be a whole new crop of double luge jokes that will crop up. But we get the last laugh because we got the medal."

Sheer has long told the story of how he was on a family vacation in Lake Placid, N.Y., when he spotted a van bearing a sticker with the phone number of the U.S. luge association, and how, as a 12-year-old, he begged his parents for $25 so he could take one run. Though he had been building elaborate sled tracks in his neighbor's back yard since he was 6 years old — "He used to build them all over the neighborhood," his sister Abby said today-Sheer, like most Americans, had only the vaguest notion of what luge was all about. Abby had no clue. But this afternoon, she was standing on the side of a mountain, gripping the hand of Sheer's girlfriend as her brother made his landmark run.

"They might win the first American luge medal ever!" screamed Josh Siegel, Sheer's cousin, after Sheer and Thorpe came through the first run in second place.

"Ever!" screamed Mika Siegel, Josh's cousin.

"Ever!" echoed Abby, with the same measure of disbelief.

Sheer and Thorpe, meanwhile, were in near-shock over what had just occurred.

"I started getting nervous after the first run," Thorpe admitted. "That's when it got tense."

Actually, according to Laura Scharosch, Sheer's girlfriend, it got tense a long time ago. Sheer may have been happily making jokes about luge doubles and its American perception in the aftermath of today's triumph, but he wasn't laughing this week. Like all of his American teammates, Sheer put a ban on contact with his girlfriend — and his entire family — for the week. Until she hugged him and said "I love you" on the hill this afternoon, Sheer hadn't seen or spoken to Scharosch since last Friday. Grimmette accidentally ran into his girlfriend at luge singles competition earlier this week, and barely permitted himself to speak.

Already in the midst of a rocky year — Sheer and Thorpe hadn't finished above third in any event this season — the duo got hit with another roadblock when Thorpe injured his wrist just over one month ago. For days, Thorpe could not practice. The team, which has been together for 10 years, thought it was a disaster. Instead, it turned out to be what Thorpe today called "the best thing that could have happened to us."

With Thorpe out, Sheer turned to the best place he could think of to find a replacement: his own kitchen. Grimmette, who shares a house in Lake Placid with his partner Martin and Sheer, volunteered to do double sledding duty and take runs with both his roommates. And while sledding with Grimmette, Sheer tinkered with his style and realized exactly what he and Thorpe had been doing wrong. Once Thorpe was ready to get back on the sled — with his wrist tightly wrapped, as it was today — the twosome found themselves sledding better than they had in months.

"We really work together," Sheer said of the American team, "and I think our success today showed home working together can pay off in the end."

Grimmette and Martin were expected to America's best medal hope today, but they did not seem to mind finishing third behind Sheer and Thorpe. On the victory podium, the four Americans were celebrating together and posing for pictures in their lemon-lime racing suits while their friends and families stood nearby.

Scharosch was unable to stop crying. And Gordy's mother, Nancy Sheer, who said she had felt "total nausea" all day, appeared to almost be in a daze.

"Is it over?" she said, to no one in particular. "Did they really win?"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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