On a beach of lion-colored sand Brian Shimer adjusts his shades, smooths his hair and applies the tip of his forefinger delicately to his upper lip. "When I'm back home in Florida like this, I always try to get out in the sun and soak up the vitamin C, or whatever," says the hottest U.S. bobsledder on glazed ice. "In college the only reason I tried to get a tan was to pull in the babes."
In a sport of tallowy complexions, the only thing more surprising than Shimer's tan is his recent success. On Sunday in Igls, Austria, the four-man sled he pilots finished third at the world championships, which were won by Switzerland's Gustav Weder. That bronze is the first medal U.S. bobsledders have won at the worlds in 24 years. Shimer has been at or near the top of the World Cup standings all season, and as a result he's among the early favorites for next year's Olympics in Lillehammer. If that doesn't give you chills, consider that the last time an American slider struck Olympic gold was in 1948 when Francis Tyler drove a four-man team to victory in St. Moritz.
America's new bob hope is a laconic fellow whose benign, soft-spoken style seems almost humble. "I never saw snow until I was in college," says Shimer, 30, who played running back and wide receiver at Morehead (Ky.) State. "Maybe I'm playing in snow now because I was deprived of it as a child."
When Shimer goes home to Naples, Fla., the lack of snow and sleds limits training. But his beautician girlfriend, Lorraine Hildebrandt, resents all the time he spends abroad. "Bobsledding is running wild over my love life," he says. "When the season's over, I guess she'll kick me out and I'll move back in with my mother. I mean, I love my girlfriend, but I really love bobsledding."
In the mid-'80s the U.S. bobsled federation, desperate to regain respectability in a sport America once dominated, went on a national recruiting drive for speed and muscle. Shimer, who had just graduated from Morehead State, tried out. "The danger sucked me in," Shimer says. He scored so well on the strength and agility tests he took in Lake Placid in the fall of '85 that he was headed to Germany for his first race two weeks later. This, despite the fact that he had never even seen a bobsled up close.
Shimer's initiation wasn't without setbacks. Near the end of the two-week prerace training period, the sled on which he was a brakeman flipped. Shimer emerged unbroken but slightly bowed. "My crewmates were crumpled on the ice and clutching body parts," he recalls. "I didn't know if I wanted to be 5,000 miles from home and dead." But he weathered the crack-up, and his career has been going downhill ever since.
At the Calgary Olympics, Shimer helped push a four-man sled to a 16th-place finish. Afterward, he resolved to move up to the front and become a driver. He achieved a measure of celebrity as the chauffeur to slumming stars from other sports, driving Mr. Willie, Mr. Herschel and Mr. Edwin. (That's the NFL's Gault and Walker, and Olympic hurdles champ Moses.) Shimer and Walker made the '92 Olympic team in the two-man, but rough sledding awaited them in Albertville. Despite having fast times in the final two practice heats, they wound up a disappointing seventh. On their maiden descent an overeager Walker hopped into the sled prematurely, all but eliminating them from medal contention.
This season has brought redemption. In November in Calgary, Shimer and his crew attained the first World Cup victory by a U.S. four-man sled since 1987. But because few top European teams had made the crossing, nobody paid much attention. Within a month Shimer silenced the doubters with successive four-man wins in Winterberg and Altenberg, Germany.
Shimer's success is largely due to the coaching of Meinhard Nehmer, an Elvis look-alike who drove East Germany to three Olympic golds in 1976 and '80 and who joined the U.S. team a year ago. Nehmer's English is so limited that he and Shimer communicate mainly through arm flapping, ear tugging and chest scratching. Somehow, the message gets across.
A bigger concern than communication is continuance. The sport may be dropped from the Olympics after Lillehammer. "If that happens, I'll just be a beach bum," says Shimer. "At least it won't cost me anything."