Its coach is still a college undergraduate. The manager, 28, comes from the warranty department of a New York Cadillac dealer. And its physical conditioner, a 28-year-old Soviet refugee, is a professor of poodle primping. This is the leadership of a U.S. Olympic team?
Dmitry Grinshpon, late of Kiev and of late of Brooklyn, teaches dog grooming at The Nash Academy of Animal Arts in Cliffside Park, N.J. and trains the American lugers on the side. That's more or less the reverse of how he did things in the U.S.S.R., where he was a P.E. teacher who trained dogs as a hobby. Still, working with Coach Svein Romstad, 24, a Norwegian-trained luger who's a senior at the University of Georgia, and Manager (Bullet) Bob Hughes, Grinshpon has somehow managed to pull the U.S. approach to sliding out of the dark ages in time for February's Olympics in Sarajevo, where the Americans will have an outside chance of copping a medal. "Mad Bulldog and Bullet Bob," says Grinshpon, who still speaks with the cadences of Boris Badinov. "I hope we work together 50 years. We work so good, like wheels. Don't even need oil. We drink vodka."
"Dmitry," says Frank Masley, the finest male U.S. luger, "still thinks que pasa is English."
With Grinshpon left at home because of the team's tight budget, the Americans found this season's first foray into international competition to be tough sledding. Last weekend in Igls, Austria, in the first leg of the three-race Dreibahn, the U.S. failed to place anyone in the top 10, and Masley finished a distant 37th. Despite what those dire results would seem to indicate, the Americans have an improved and feisty team. The U.S. placed Masley and four women in the men's or women's top 10 at last February's world championships in Lake Placid. It was the first time any American had finished in such select company in major international competition, which is dominated by lugers from East Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union.
With its high speeds—sliders routinely attain 70 mph—its East-West intrigue and its futuristic technology, luge is one part Craig Breedlove, two parts Dr. Strangelove. Lugers spend hours tinkering with their sleds, sneaking peeks at those of their opponents and jockeying for more practice time—all for a run of less than a mile. "I know people think it's crazy," says Donna Burke of Amherst, Mass., at 29 the grande dame of the U.S. team. "But they don't understand. The sound a sled makes when it is running fast and true is so beautiful. It's eerie—the sound of wind."
Alas, life on the European circuit isn't quite so sublime. The U.S. sliders had $37,575 to cover expenses for two months—plane fare, room and board, track fees and thousands of kilometers of travel in a leased car and two rented vans. The vans, one of which has had to be roll-started all along the way, carry 13 athletes and their gear. Entertainment comes from one very battered Parcheesi set.
"For the amount of money we've had to work with, we've done remarkably well," says USLA President Jim Moriarty. "In the past, we were so preoccupied with just surviving that we couldn't concentrate on things like technique. Winning medals has to be done in July, with equipment and training."
So Grinshpon spent the summer with half the team in New York's Central Park, putting it through sprints, aerobics and a Soviet technique called "disorientation training." It's a series of exercises, drawing from gymnastics and acrobatics, designed to simulate the drops, turns and general discombobulation of a luge run. "The mind and body have to recover from confusion very fast," says Grinshpon. "Not with drugs. By themselves. Luge is a sport that has such a big pressure, Gravitation." Says Erica Terwillegar, a luger from Lake Placid, "Dmitry would have us hop over benches, and there'd be people sleeping on the benches."
Grinshpon's Eastern Bloc connections have also given the U.S. access to what's going down in the sport. And the American sliders, an outgoing bunch, are well liked internationally. They can deal for parts and advice on a pretty good rate of exchange. "They like Bullet and they like Americans because they friendly, more open," says Grinshpon. "You want a T shirt? We give you T shirt."
Masley, 23, of Newark, Del., is as unlikely a luger as he is a likable one. He first saw the sport on TV during the '76 Olympics and had to try it. He blew his paper-route earnings on a trip to Placid for a development camp. Seven years later, Masley placed 10th at the worlds, despite driving a crude sled. "Junk," says Grinshpon.
For youth, there's Terwillegar, 20, who placed fifth among women at the worlds. "Erica very good athlete," says Grinshpon, "but she not yet very stable. One competition she do great, one time she make stupid mistake. Can use coaching."
For luck, try Bonny Warner, a Stanford junior from Mount Baldy, Calif. In 1979, while reading a magazine in her high school library when she should have been studying, she spotted an ad for a contest to pick the torchbearers for the '80 Winter Games. She entered and, to her surprise, won. That got her to Lake Placid, where luge was about the only sport she didn't catch. But she saw a notice for a luge development camp after the Games and hung around. While in Placid, Warner received word that she'd won $5,000 in still another contest, Levi's Olympic Opportunity Sweepstakes. The windfall allowed her to go off to Germany for a season to train. By 1981 Warner had made the U.S. Junior Team; two years later she placed seventh in the worlds. "Very stable," Grinshpon says, "Gets better and better."
So has the U.S. team. But to win a medal in February, they'll need a lot of luck, too, which they just may have. Last week in Igls, Warner bought a ticket in the Austrian lottery. She won 10 schillings (50¢).