Word is, he did a flip off a 50-foot bridge into the Saranac River in upstate New York as the ice was going out. He was once thrown off the U.S. bobsled team, in part for drinking too much. And folks in the Adirondacks still talk about the time he drove from Saranac Lake to Long Island—350 miles—in a '57 Chevy without any brakes. "Went right through all the red lights," says Brent Rushlaw, the hero of these tales. "Toughest part was the toll booths."
Rushlaw's real shy, real quiet and real trouble. He makes his living cooking food, painting houses, waiting tables and chopping wood. But he lives to drive a bobsled. And nobody in America, and almost nobody in the world, drives a two-man bobsled better than Rushlaw. Now, there's more to bobsled racing than driving—there's aerodynamics and athleticism, too—but Rushlaw's specialty is knowing the ropes, which, incidentally, are what you use to steer those 800-pound bullets.
Once upon a time U.S. bobsledding consisted of a bunch of beefy guys from the Adirondacks alternately sliding down the Lake Placid run and crawling out the tavern door. Well, Rushlaw is the last of that breed. He looks like what bobsledders used to look like and drinks the way bobsledders used to drink. Actually, with the big, black beard he wore until recently and his size 42 stout body and Mount Van Hoevenberg nose, Rushlaw could pass himself off as one of Santa's helpers—if Santa needed someone to lean on the reindeer a little. A couple of weeks ago, when Rushlaw got back from the U.S. team's pre-Olympic European tour, he shaved the beard. Now he looks like one of Zapata's helpers.
Rushlaw has been the national two-man champion five times and will go after his sixth title this week in the Olympic Trials at Lake Placid. He has won 18 of the 26 two-man races he has entered in the U.S. In the '80 Olympics he was in the running for a bronze medal after two heats, but he blew his third run when he hit the wall and ended up sixth.
This year U.S. sledders will be lucky to get a sixth at the Sarajevo Olympics. The design of the American bobs is years behind that of the East German and Soviet machines, and the U.S. push times—the moments it takes to get a sled started down the run—are half a second slower than the best. America's highest hopes, such as they are, lie with Rushlaw and Bobby Hickey, last year's national two-man champion. Both happen to be on the outs with the governing body of the sport, the U.S. Bobsledding Federation.
This is Rushlaw's last stand. He is 32, has a family to support and is tired of the hassles. The bobsledder's lot isn't an easy one. He's almost always in debt, unless he can find sponsors to buy his sled for him and pay for its upkeep and shipping. Rushlaw was fortunate enough to get Budweiser to purchase him his current machine. In the past, his sponsors have included the Dew Drop Inn, Duffy's Cedar Post, Dagwood's Pizza...you get the idea.
Rushlaw has had his share of misadventures. In 1982, after winning the U.S. two-man title, he was kicked off the national team. He got the boot on a trip to Europe. Rushlaw, who had been doing well in races at home, left his successful sled in Saranac Lake and picked up a new one from a designer in Cortina, Italy. But the new sled was a dud, and Rushlaw began losing badly and became discouraged. He broke training, drank in public and finally asked to be sent home. "I felt like everybody was against me over there," he says. The federation suspended him for the rest of the season.
He ran into trouble again on this year's European jaunt. At the Sarajevo Cup, which was run on the Olympic course in early December, Rushlaw refused to race, partly because the U.S. team trainer, a high school football and track coach from Peru, N.Y. named Mike Beauvais, wouldn't let him put a Budweiser sticker on his sled. Lederle Labs was sponsoring the U.S. tour and had primary advertising rights on the American sleds. But Rushlaw pointed out that Bud had paid for his sled, and that if it was so important to have a vitamin logo on every sled, how come the U.S.A. III machine was allowed to race without any stickers at all?
By then the Sarajevo race already had probably gone down the tubes for Rush-law, because he'd lost his regular brake-man, Jim Tyler. Tyler, 22, had been fooling around in a Sarajevo gymnasium. He went up to dunk a soccer ball, hung on the rim for a while and then let go. The rim snapped back, shattering the glass backboard, and shards of glass rained down on Tyler, whose arms and chest were cut in many places. Tyler was taken back to the hotel, where John Cogar, a veterinarian who pushes on Hickey's four-man team, sewed him up. The U.S. team did have a doctor, Merritt Spear, but he's a coroner in Peru. "I have more experience in sutures," said Cogar. Tyler has now recovered.
On the bobsled run of life, Rushlaw, who grew up in Saranac Lake, has had to right himself many times. When he was 10 his father was killed in an automobile accident. Poncho Rushlaw left behind four kids. "We were so much trouble," says Brent. His mother, Betty, tried to raise them, but she had a nervous breakdown, so Brent at various times lived with his grandparents, in a foster home and with friends.
At Saranac Lake High, Rushlaw quarterbacked the football team and starred in basketball and baseball. He went to Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y. and majored in economics. During his junior year he came home on vacation, and his life was forever changed. "Gil Miron—he was a cop, and a great sledder—asked me one day if I wanted to slide," says Rushlaw. "I guess he heard I was a reckless kid. So I went, and I got hooked. I never went back to Clarkson."
Rushlaw soon began to work his way up the sledding ladder, getting an advanced degree in bob economics by standing on street corners selling tags for the Saranac Lake Bobsled Club. He met Susan Neese at the Dew Drop Inn, where they both worked, and in 1979 she became a bobsled wife. At the '80 Olympics—"it was during the four-mans," she says—she gave birth to Samantha. The child is known as Little S, after a curve in the Mount Van Hoevenberg run.
People who don't know him—heck, even people who do—find it hard to get a handle on Rushlaw. "He's very quiet," says Susan, "but that's because he had a different kind of childhood. That's been a problem a lot of times with sponsors and the newspapers. And he's stubborn. He doesn't bend at times when he should."
Rushlaw is treated with near reverence by many of the other drivers. Switzerland's Erich Scharer, who won the gold in the two-man at the Lake Placid Olympics, says Rushlaw is one of the best natural drivers in the world. Other drivers say he can do wonders by tinkering with a sled, but for all his attention to sled detail and design, he pays scant attention to his own body. "As great a driver as he is," says Cogar, "I just wish he was more of an athlete."
In fact, at his current 195 pounds the 5'10" Rushlaw is in top shape, thanks to the urgings of Tyler, something of a specimen himself. But Rushlaw did bridle at the training regimen set up by Beauvais in Europe. At times Beauvais got the team up to run at 5 a.m. on the day of a race. He had them rolling around in the rain in football drills. They also had an 11 p.m. curfew and a two-beer limit. "The physical shape of some of these guys is a disgrace," says Beauvais. "Why, you or I could beat Rushlaw in the 50-yard dash."
One would think the U.S. Bobsledding Federation would be interested in putting its best sleds forward for the Olympics, but the organization is a morass of politics. Bobsled wars are almost traditional, as power changes hands from one town to another in upstate New York, but this year things have gotten especially ugly. President Al Hachigan of Plattsburgh is suspected by some sledders of lining his own pockets with federation money. Hachigan, in turn, has complained to Essex County authorities that his office has been bugged. Whatever, Hachigan certainly has his favorites, and Hickey and Rushlaw aren't among them. They stand for the past, and the federation sees them as a threat to the future.
But all Rushlaw wants to do right now is get a good sled and slide. And celebrate. One night in Sarajevo, the Italian, British, Canadian and U.S. teams got together for a banquet. There was much laughter and singing, including a splendid rendition of New York, New York by the British. "This is what bobsledding is all about," said Rushlaw. pulling on a beer. "Guys getting together and having a good time. I bet the East Germans are in bed right now."
Rushlaw tested the Sarajevo run but failed to compete because of a sticker situation.
In Saranac, under the eyes of Little S and Susan, Rushlaw tries out a dismantled four-man bobsled.