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Winter Olympics: Calgary : Bobsledding Still Is Rough Around Edges

February 11, 1988|MIKE KUPPER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

Bobsledding and Calgary? It sounds like a marriage made in heaven. A roughneck sport in a roughneck town. What could be more appropriate?

Alas, it should have happened 50 years ago. In those days, Calgary really was just a cow town, with no delusions of grandeur. And one of the best parts about bobsledding, providing everyone was still in one piece and breathing, was repairing to a convenient taproom afterward for libations, lying and loud arguing.

Calgary and bobsledding would have gotten along famously then.

Nowadays, though, Olympic host Calgary has gone high hat, and bobsledding has gone high tech.

At least that's what some folks would have us believe.

But Calgary--until now, it's leading cultural activity was a rodeo--still has some rough edges. And so, being bobsledding, does bobsledding.

One of them, in fact, will be driving the No. 1 sleds for the United States team. Brent Rushlaw, 36, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., a throwback to the old days, when the nation's sliders all came from the Lake Placid neighborhood, will be competing in the Olympics for the fourth time.

Rushlaw didn't make the U.S. national team the last two seasons, which meant that he didn't compete in international events and pretty much restricted his bobsledding activities to whatever was going on at Lake Placid, which has the U.S.'s only bob run.

But last summer, he slimmed down, gave up beer for cranberry juice, passed the national team's eight-point fitness test and, a few weeks ago, qualified as the No. 1 driver, ahead of Matt Roy. That seemed no small feat, because Roy, 28, of Lake Placid, had won the 1986-87 World Cup four-man title and had finished second in the two-man.

Would this, then, be a new Brent Rushlaw?

Suggested Gil Jones, the bobsled team's manager, implying as much: "Brent really got serious this year. He trained hard and has done well. He has good hands and a real technique when it comes to reading the ice and getting the sled down the track."

But lest anyone still cling to the idea that he really has mellowed, Rushlaw's freely offered beliefs on the technology of bobsled building also indicate otherwise:

"Our equipment is better than we've had in the last couple of years but it's not as good as the East Germans, the Russians and the Swiss have," he said. "We're trying to come up with something new all the time. It's a simple sport and instead of trying that, it would make more sense to me to take what we have and make it better."

And so, despite talk of a new approach to an old sport, new more aerodynamic sleds and a new image, a lot about bobsledding remains the same.

Still, there has been one important change. Nowadays, instead of relying on Upstate New York to supply sliders, the U.S. team has gone recruiting. And it has come back with some impressive athletes.

Rushlaw's team, for instance, includes pusher Bill White of Nashua, N.H., an Air Force captain who was an All-American track competitor in his college days at Northern Colorado, and brakeman Mike Wasko of Sayerville, N.J., three-time hurdles champion in the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Track and Field Assn. for Farleigh-Dickinson University.

Roy's team includes brakeman Jim Herberich of Winchester, Mass., Harvard record-holder in the 200- and 400-meter runs, and pusher Brian Shimer of Naples, Fla., a former football player at Morehead State in Kentucky and also a former Florida state high school wrestling champion.

Before whoosh time at Calgary, Mike Aljoe of Lewisville, Tex., who played defensive end on three Big Eight Conference and one national championship football teams at Oklahoma, may be riding, too, either on Roy's four-man, Rushlaw's two-man or both. At 6-feet 1-inch and 220 pounds, Aljoe combines the strength, speed and coordination drivers are looking for in the push-start, which is generally agreed to be the most crucial element of bobsledding.

Two-man teams won't be set until the squad gets to Calgary but Rushlaw was leaning toward Aljoe as his brakeman on the boblet, instead of Shimer.

Roy may substitute Aljoe for pusher Scott Pladel of Boston on his four-man sled. Roy said that Pladel has not been pleased with his own efforts and volunteered to have a push-off with Aljoe in Calgary for a seat on the sled.

Also going to Calgary, as an alternate, will be Willie Gault, the Chicago Bear wide receiver and former track star at Tennessee. Gault, midst some grumbling about arriving late and taking a spot others had been working for since October, qualified for the 12-man team as a pusher but was on the No. 3 sled. Only two sleds are allowed for each country, and Rushlaw and Roy each said he had no plans for using Gault.

U.S. medals in bobsledding have been rare in the recent past. American teams won the gold in both the four- and two-man competition in 1932 at Lake Placid and the U.S. two-man team won in 1936, but there has been no gold since then.

In fact, there have been no U.S. medals since 1956, when the four-man team finished third. Jeff Jost, currently the coach of the U.S. team, startled the bobsled world by finishing fifth in the four-man event at Sarajevo four years ago.

THE OUTLOOK

The East Germans have won 10 of the 18 medals available in the last three Olympics, the Swiss have won five, and the Soviets have been paying a lot of attention to the sport, which makes them dangerous. They finished third and fourth in the two-man event at Sarajevo.

Wolfgang Hoppe is the leading East German driver--the best in the world, some say--and 42-year-old Hans Hildebrand is the Swiss ace, and there's nothing wrong with his teammate, Ralph Pichler, either.

East Germany, the USSR and Switzerland figure to battle for the medals, although Austria, with Ingo Appelt, may sneak in for one of them.

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