It seemed an odd juxtaposition in Lake Placid, N.Y., last weekend. There were three of America's premier athletes—Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles; Herschel Walker, Heisman Trophy winner, Minnesota Viking running back and two-time Pro Bowl selection; and Willie Gault, Los Angeles Raider wide receiver, wearer of a Super Bowl championship ring and perhaps the fastest man in the NFL—hunched over a four-man bobsled.
A bobsled? Has the sports world gone mad? Not only did it stretch credibility to see athletes of this caliber in a bobsled, but, come on, sledding on a hot day in July? Even the village of Lake Placid seemed confused. Signs were posted everywhere that read, NO PARKING 2 A.M. TO 6 A.M. SNOW REMOVAL, while baskets of flowers hung from the parking meters.
In these days of the filthy-rich athlete, it seems amazing that men as renowned as Moses, Walker and Gault would want to compete in a sport for sport's sake. But the three insist they are serious about making the U.S. Olympic bobsled team. Says Gault, who was on the U.S. team in '88, "I'm not talking about winning a medal, I'm talking about winning the gold medal. We are 100 percent committed."
Until last Friday neither Moses nor Walker had ever laid a hand on a bobsled. But as they pushed off with Gault and driver Brian Shimer for the first time that afternoon, launching a training sled mounted on rails, they looked impressive. "It was like a turbo boost," said Shimer. Added the U.S. team's coach, Tony Carlino, "What we have just seen is Day One, which will lead to our gold medal."
Bold words, given that the U.S. hasn't won an Olympic medal of any kind in the four-man event since 1956, when it picked up a bronze. In the '88 Games at Calgary, the U.S. four-man bob finished a disappointing fourth. "It's embarrassing that a rich country like America can't put four guys in a bobsled and win," says Gault.
To remedy the situation, Gault convinced Moses and Walker to attend these qualifying tests in Lake Placid; two more of Gault's buddies are expected to audition later this summer: Renaldo Nehemiah, the former San Francisco 49er who once held the world record in the 110-meter hurdles, and Roger Kingdom, current record holder in that event. Gault, a sprinter on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, took the bobsled plunge in 1986. "I always wanted to win Olympic medals in both the Summer and Winter Games," he says, "and I knew I couldn't ski, figure skate, play hockey.... But when I saw bobsled-ding on TV, I thought, I can do that."
Therein lies the secret. Unless you're the driver, sledding is an easy sport. Indeed, Gault, 29, says he learned in a day. All the pushers have to do, says Shimer, is push the sled for 25 to 40 meters, then "get in and sit still."
This isn't the first time that Gault's friends have ventured into the unknown. Walker, 28, has danced with the Fort Worth Ballet, competed in karate tournaments, written a fitness column for The Dallas Morning News and hosted his own call-in radio show in Minneapolis. Moses, 34, is working on his M.B.A. at Pepperdine, has been an airplane pilot since 1981 and scuba dives. "I can do it all—on the land, sea and air," he says. "And now, on the ice. I'm a seal."
The test Moses, Walker and Gault took last week—along with 18 other hopefuls—was designed to identify natural ability. It included sprints (30, 60 and 100 meters), a vertical jump, a weight toss and a hopping drill. Gault, who won all three sprints, finished first with 802 points out of a possible 900; Walker and Moses tied for second with 761 points each. About 75 of the 200 athletes who take the test this summer are expected to move on to the next phase, the team trials in September.
If the trio makes the U.S. team, as everyone expects, they will then have to start training on ice. Carlino isn't worried about that. "If we can save 10 hundredths of a second at the start, that translates into three hundredths at the bottom," he says. "Over four heats, that's 1.2 seconds. We lost in Calgary by two hundredths. Now we're big time."
Will bobsledding turn out to be just another summer romance for these stars, ending when the footballs fly and big-money deals loom? We shall see. But for now, U.S. bobsledding is heading downhill, fast, and it's a wonder to behold.