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Shimer still hyper about driving bobsleds

The Naples native loves the event he says is like the rush of Star Wars.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Brian Shimer can see the end. Maybe that is why it seems so much like a beginning.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Brian Shimer can see the end. Maybe that is why it seems so much like a beginning.

Considered the greatest bobsled driver never to win an Olympic medal, Shimer will compete in his fifth Games next month at Salt Lake City. After that, win or lose, his Olympic career will be over.

Retirement is nearing as well. Instead of racing by the seat of his pants at 85 mph, Shimer is looking forward to a regular seat at home with wife Sophia.

"The end is near and I'm starting to feel good and get excited about it again," Shimer said. "I'm starting to recharge. I'm starting to get excited about the whole deal."

That is saying a lot considering what the Naples native has been through the past few years.

The worst of it came first. Shimer missed a bronze medal in the four-man race at the 1998 Nagano Games by 0.02 of a second after leading into the final turn.

He is finally recovered from two years of right knee problems caused by the lack of an anterior cruciate ligament, removed unbeknownst to Shimer during surgeries to repair damage sustained playing football for Morehead State.

Two members of his four-man team defected to another driver for the 2000-01 World Cup season. And Paul Wise, a world-class push athlete who came out of retirement at Shimer's request to help fill that gap, was lost in October, when a crash fractured discs in his back.

It would have been easy to climb out of the driver's seat. But at 39, Shimer wasn't ready leave a sport he said still makes him feel like he is making the jump to hyperspace in a Star Wars movie.

And with a chance to win the United States' first Olympic bobsled medal since 1956 on his home turf, well, that was too much to pass up.

"I told myself to get out there and do it," Shimer said, "and that's why I'm here today."

Shimer, ranked 33rd in the world entering the Olympic trials, is a sentimental favorite among U.S bobsledders, if not a medal favorite on paper. That honor goes to Todd Hays, who will pilot USA I in the Olympics and whose four-man team at the trials included Shimer defector Garrett Hines.

"We hope he does it," brakeman Ivan Radcliff said of Shimer's medal quest. "When I found out that in '98 Brian missed it by a couple hundredths of a second, it was like, oh, man, he's had so many near misses it's crazy. It's about time he won something."

Shimer has won plenty.

He took the four-man World Cup title in 1992-93. He took bronze in the two-man and four-man at the 1997 World Championships, and won three gold and three silvers in 1996-97.

He was considered the country's top driver from 1990-2000 and was a medal favorite in 1992 at Albertville, France, in '96 at Lillehammer, Norway, and in '98 at Nagano, Japan. But calamity after calamity derailed his dream.

At Albertville, Shimer and Herschel Walker were seventh in the two-man with Shimer blaming the former football player, who was removed from the team before the four-man event, for a poor start. At Lillehammer, Shimer's four-man sled was disqualified because its runners were too warm, giving it a speed advantage.

At Nagano, in addition to the still inexplicable deceleration of his sled in the final turn, Shimer was accused before the Games of having high testosterone levels in his urine. He was cleared.

Salt Lake City, where he'll drive two-man and four-man sleds, is Shimer's final frontier. So, what did he want to talk about? His introduction to the sport in 1985. He was a brakeman then and, as such, made it to the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

"If you ever saw a Star Wars movie, when you see the stars going by you, that's what it feels like," Shimer said. "After that, no roller coaster in the world can mimic a bobsled run."

And that was when he was sitting in the back of the sled. When he finally moved up front as a driver, "It's a whole other level of adrenaline and a rush and a high that still gets me today," he said. "I think that's why I'm still here."

Shimer is here because his knee no longer hurts, experience overcame the limitations of age, and the team he cobbled together for the trials after Wise's injury -- Mike Kohn, Doug Sharp and Dan Steele -- used energy and enthusiasm to make up for a lack of familiarity.

But even as Shimer celebrated his Olympic rebirth, he was saddened that Wise could not share in the fun.

"It is very bittersweet," Shimer said. "It is unfortunate that I cannot share it with Paul because we have slid together for a long time. But this is the most rewarding Olympic team I have ever made."

He can only hope the end is as good as this beginning.

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