'94 WINTER OLYMPICS / LILLEHAMMER : They Hitch a Ride on Dreams and a Prayer

Nathan (Chip) Minton III, 24, is a corrections officer from Macon, Ga., whose ambition is to become a pro wrestler. Dudley Stokes, 31, is a helicopter pilot from Grand Turk, Jamaica, whose life helped inspire a hit movie. Gregory Sebald, 30, is an attorney from Minneapolis. Faauuga (Tia) Muagututia, 35, left his native Pago Pago to become a special-forces Navy SEAL. Albert Alexander Louis Pierre Grimaldi, 35, is the son of a famous actress and is heir to his country's throne. Joseph Almasian, 26, toils in an automobile repair shop in Pawtucket, R.I.

Be a flyer, be an islander.

Be a lawyer, be a sailor.

Be a prince, be a pauper.

Be all you can be.

But if you want to be an Olympian, about all you need is a sled.

None of these six men grew up knowing a bobsled from a bobby pin. This comes as a surprise not in the least to the coach of the American team here, Joey Kilburn, who says: "We can bring someone in from another sport and, within a month, we can teach them how to work with a sled, how to accelerate, how to push one properly. And, in one year, they can be on the Olympic team.

"Every athlete's goal is to be in the Olympics. Our sport gives them the window to get in."

It can open up new worlds not only to a Minnesota mouthpiece or a New England fender bender, but to a San Francisco-born boy whose hobby is sailboarding, to a student from New Hampshire whose first love is volleyball and to a carpenter from suburban Detroit who at 46 still enjoys zipping along on a sled--not one of whom is here competing for the United States.

There is clearly something about bobsledding that has made it the Ellis Island of the Winter Olympics, opening its portals and carrying a torch for practically anyone.

Consider, for instance:

THE MASKED AMERICAN

"Ric Flair has sent me a few faxes here," Chip Minton says.

Ric Flair the, uh . . .

"The wrestler," he says, surprised you don't know.

Some boys from Georgia grow up watching Hank Aaron on TV, or Richard Petty on TV, or Dominique Wilkins on TV. Chip Minton grew up watching Ric Flair on TV. Ric Flair is a wrestler with very blond hair, very large legs and very tight tights. Chip Minton likes Ric Flair. Chip Minton would like to be like Ric Flair.

"He's going to help me get back in the gym, soon as I get home," says Minton, who intends to put aside his career as a Georgia correctional officer and put fork to plate until his weight balloons from its present 215 pounds to around 250, 260.

"I've got a lot of work to do if I'm going to make it in that sport," he says.

On a Sunday morning on a hilltop in Norway, in weather so cold it would make an Eskimo tremble, the thought that warms Chip Minton's heart is the image of him leaping off the top rope and onto some behemoth's throat, some mighty World Championship Wrestling hero (or villain) like the ones he loved as a child, like, oh . . . who, Chip?

"Oh, like Andre the Giant," he says.

No wonder his bobsled partner looks amused. Jim Herberich, 30, is the driver of their USA sled, Minton his brakeman. Herberich is a Harvard grad. He is employed as a hydrologist who specializes in protecting the environment. But in everything he ever does in his life, or everything he has done already, there is one thing that has never once crossed Herberich's mind.

He says, "No, I can honestly say as a Harvard man that I have never once considered the possibility of becoming a wrestler."

THE COOL JAMAICAN

"Cool Runnings" was more than a Walt Disney movie to Dudley Stokes. It was his story. It was his brother Nelson's story. It was his hobbin'-and-a-bobbin' sledmates' story. It was the coolest, mon.

After giving everybody a good laugh--and having one themselves--at Calgary in 1988, the Jamaican bobsledders got serious. They began to improve. And they became an inspiration to other tropical bobsledders, who began copycatting the cool runners from Kingston with teams of their own--Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, the Virgin Islands.

Jamaica's is still the original.

"We're from a Third World country, but we've been able to put together a team and an organization," says Stokes, who flies jet copters for the island's Air Force. "You break it down into do-able pieces and it doesn't seem so intimidating.

"I think it says that, in bits and pieces, anything is possible."

Dawn Steel, a movie mogul who visited Lillehammer last week, was one of the first to be amazed by the phrase, "Jamaican bobsledders?" and see its entertainment potential. She produced the movie that delighted audiences, even if it did take a liberty or two.

Stokes said: "I was a little nervous going in, but very impressed after seeing it. I'm aware that Walt Disney is a business and that they were doing the movie because there was a profit to be made."

Dudley's younger brother, who will be in Jamaica's four-man sled here next weekend, said: "I like the part where John Candy walks into the room and talks to the driver and asks why he cheated in the Olympics, and he says a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but that if you're not good enough without one, then you're not good enough with one. That, I liked."

THE GRECIAN FORMULA

Greg Sebald was watching Olympic hockey on TV two years ago and thinking how much fun being an Olympian would be. His sister, Greta, meanwhile, happened to travel to Greece in search of the family's roots.

She found a grandfather, Poulos, 93, neither of them knew they had.

"I didn't know he existed and he didn't know we existed," Greta said.

Light bulbs came on above their heads. Gary chose bobsled--the window. He attended an instructional school in Canada. Greta chose the luge. She took leave from her marketing job with the United Way of St. Paul, Minn., and gave it a try. Next thing she knew, Greece-- the home of the Olympics--was anointing her its first Olympic luger.

As for Greg, he had a sport, he had a team; now all he needed was a teammate.

"I made eight billion calls," he said.

Where could he find a second Greek bobsledder?

He called overseas. He called American colleges, making background checks. Finally he found Christodoulos Marinos, 28, a graduate of that ever-popular bobsled academy, Aristotle University. He was studying in the States, but said he would be happy to make time for a little diversion.

That was how Greg Sebald became an Olympian, even though he had never even sat inside a bobsled until a few months ago.

"Yeah, but I was captain of my law firm's basketball team," he said.

THE GOIN' SAMOAN

Jim Hickey, a coach who has been giving Tia Muagututia tips on how to make a bobsled go faster, says, "The man really has no fear of anything at all."

You would think so, wouldn't you?

As part of the elite-unit Navy SEALS, for which no more than 5% of Naval personnel qualifies and which has a huge attrition rate, Tia is a tough 5-foot-10, 185-pounder who might not be as large as some of the Samoans who play pro football, but who can handle himself anywhere, anytime.

Almost.

Of his first bobsled ride, Tia recalled, "My heart was going 100 beats a second. Man, it was scary."

Now, though, he and Brad Kiltz have become American Samoa's first Winter Olympians. Tia came to like this bobsled ride. He said, "It's probably not as bad as jumping out of an airplane."

Once Samoans caught Jamaica's act, they wanted one of their own. So why call Tia?

"I know why," he said. "They needed somebody crazy enough to ride in their sled, that's why."

THE FRESH PRINCE

It isn't easy getting used to that room in the Olympic village with all the other athletes. He says, "The bed's a little narrow."

When you are His Serene Highness, Prince Albert of Monaco, Marquis des Baux, you easily get accustomed to a king-sized.

And then there are all those other guys around the dorm who call out "Hey, Albert!" the ones who ask if he would mind posing with them for a photo. He says, "No, of course not."

The son of Prince Rainier and the late actress-princess, Grace Kelly, is happy to oblige. He has fancied himself an athlete all his life. Javelin thrower in college, swimmer, skier, rower, fencer, handball player and black belt in judo, Albert Grimaldi is the crown prince of jocks.

His principality has 5,000 subjects. It's about the size of the Olympic village.

But both are home to him. This is the royal sledder's third Olympics. Although he has never placed among the top 25, it does more than amuse him. After his 31st-place finish with brakeman Gilbert Bessi in the two-man finals Sunday, there was enough competitor in Prince Albert that he said: "I have to find fault first in myself. I just haven't driven very well."

His Highness is a proper fellow. Yet he still remembers his reaction in 1986 when a coach suggested that bobsledding might be right up his alley, that rather than support Monaco's Olympic team, he could be it.

"Wow, do you really think so?" said the Prince.

THE ARMENIAN PATRIOTS

In New England, they wait for news. Much is bad. There was the earthquake of 1988 that left 25,000 dead and 300,000 homeless. There is poverty and oppression, in spite of 1991's declaration of independence.

Ken Topalian, two-man bobsled partner of Joe Almasian's as the first Winter Olympic participants for Armenia, can't bear much more bad news from his homeland.

"Bosnia is in the news every day, but Armenia is in just as bad a situation," Topalian says. "Last year there, 30,000 died. Another 50,000 may die this year because of conditions. A million trees were cut down for heat, an ecological disaster. Things are bad, very bad."

As bad as when Almasian's grandmother was hidden by Kurds nearly 80 years ago so as not to be captured by invading Turks. By some estimates, as many as 1.5 million Armenians died in that purge.

Topalian, 30, is a mechanical engineer who lives in Sherborn, Mass. In the aftermath of Armenia's having become a free and independent state, it occurred to friends that Topalian and Almasian, good athletes both, could represent their people in Lillehammer if they could find the right vehicle.

So, they made 10-hour round trips by car to Lake Placid, N.Y., to learn how to bobsled. They paid thousands out of their own pockets.

Almasian said: "People ask who our sponsors are. I tell them, 'You're looking at them.' "

Joe and Ken placed 36th Sunday, ahead of six other nations.

"Armenia has been in the Winter Olympics," Almasian said. "Bless our country and hooray for bobsled."

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