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SNOWED UNDER : Lure of Bobsledding Makes Him a Part-Time Easterner

Times Staff Writer

Gene Janecho had grown weary of shoveling his driveway and scraping the ice off his windshield on those cold winter mornings in Youngstown, Ohio, so he fled to the more favorable climate of Southern California, like scores of other Midwesterners.

Then he became a bobsledder.

End of similarity. Beginning of a life that’s as different from most as it is difficult.

Janecho, 35, who moved to San Diego eight years ago and now lives in Huntington Beach, couldn’t give up his annual dose of snow and cold because he couldn’t pass up a chance at the Olympics or the thrill of coming off a turn at 90 miles per hour.

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He also couldn’t talk himself out of it, though he had plenty of reason.

First, there’s the proximity problem. There is one bobsled course in the country and it’s in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Then there’s equipment. The sleds usually are kept where the course is, which leaves Janecho and the rest of his teammates pushing riding lawn mowers around rented ice rinks for practice.

There are the economic problems as well.

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Janecho, a brakeman on the 15-member U.S. team, leaves his job at a sprinkler company in Santa Fe Springs, for weeks, sometimes months, at a time to train in Lake Placid or to compete in Europe.

The unpaid vacations are costly.

“This stuff keeps you broke, that’s for sure,” Janecho said.

It also keeps him sore and, at times, sick. Youngstown’s got nothing on a brisk winter day in the Alps.

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“Every time you go down on a run, it’s like getting into a car wreck. Your body always gets bumped and bruised,” Janecho said.

Janecho caught pneumonia in Europe this past winter, keeping him in bed for two weeks.

Ugly stuff and a weird hobby for a guy who isn’t that crazy about cold weather.

With the warm weather keeping him on one coast and his urge to push a bobsled regularly sending him back to, and even beyond, the other, Janecho’s shot at the Olympics is about as far flung as it can get.

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“I used to sky dive and ride motorcycles,” Janecho said. “This was just another thing to offer excitement, so I got talked into it pretty easily.”

That was in 1981. Some friends in Ohio who watched the 1980 Olympic bobsled competition on television persuaded him to join them in trying it.

“They had seen it on TV and said, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ ” I didn’t know what to expect, but I just didn’t want to keep wishing I had done it.”

Janecho, an avid weightlifter for the past seven years, was impressive enough at pushing the sled--which, along with stopping it, is the main job of a brakeman--to earn a spot on the U.S. team, along with a couple of his buddies.

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“They saw that we were pretty good athletes, and the key is giving that sled a good push at the start, so we were in there,” he said.

These days, he’s the top-rated brakeman in the country, according to the U.S. Bobsled Federation. And he’s hoping all the miseries and hardships will mean a trip to Calgary for the Winter Olympics in 1988.

Janecho’s first ride in a bobsled gave him another reason to reconsider the sport, and at the same time, a reason to keep at it.

“We were only supposed to take a few trips starting halfway through (at the mile-long Lake Placid course),” Janecho recalled. “I was in a two-man sled, and this driver I was with thought he could handle it starting from the top.”

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Janecho’s sled flipped onto its side about halfway through the course and finished the run that way.

“I would’ve walked away right there if it wouldn’t have been so embarrassing,” he said. “I was determined to go back and do it right.”

While Janecho seems to thrive on the punishment, it’s only because--despite living in Southern California--he’s a typical U.S. bobsledder. At least that’s the way John Morgan, U.S. Bobsled Federation president, sees it.

“You’ve got to be an Evel Knievel kind of guy to want to do this,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of daredevil in these guys, and Gene’s just your typical nut.”

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In a sport dominated by the Soviets, Swiss and East Germans, the United States’ battle for bobsled prominence is another dose of punishment for Janecho and his teammates to endure. At the World Championships held in Konigissee, West Germany last month, the U.S. two- and four-man teams finished 18th.

“It’s the same old story,” Janecho said. “They have the facilities and money to train. We don’t. There are plenty of full-time bobsledders over there, and you’re never any more than a day’s drive from a track.”

Janecho is doing his part to try to close the gap between the United States and bobsledding’s elite with a daily training regimen that sounds more suited for lifting sleds than pushing them.

Simply put, that means weights. Lots of them, two hours before work, three hours after and weekends full of them.

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“It’s about all I can do when I’m not competing from November through about March,” Janecho said. “We’re trying to get a push track set up back home, and some guys back there rent out ice rinks.”

And, of course, there are the lawn mowers.

“We get that desperate sometimes,” said Elmer Zahurak, a driver for the U.S. team and Janecho’s two-man partner. “It takes a lot of dedication and he’s got it. What else would you call what he goes through?”

Crazy?

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“Sure,” Janecho said, “I’m a little off-the-wall. We’re all a little off-the-wall, but this is an off-the-wall sport, remember.”


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