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In the Trash-Talking Luge, U.S. May Finally Clean Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mojo Nixon, the irreverent rocker who wrote “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child” and other favorites, was so excited to be selected honorary captain by America’s two luge doubles teams that he invited the four sledders to create some harmony with him in San Diego a couple of weeks ago.

This required the four to come up with a group name, of course, just in case this little jam session led to Motown and a Grammy.

Their decision--"The Arctic Evel Knievels"--seemed to be a perfect fit.

After all, you have to be a little manic to slide down the ice at more than 80 mph on your back, particularly with two on that small sled, the bottom man getting squished and not seeing much more than the back of his partner’s head.

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“The goal is to think each other’s thoughts and become one with the sled,” said Mark Grimmette, the top man in the team of Grimmette and Brian Martin.

Grimmette and Martin were so successful at it during the 1997-98 season that they won the World Cup title, winning four of the six races and finishing second once on a circuit usually dominated by Europeans.

This was a year after the U.S. team of Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer won the 1996-97 World Cup crown.

Now those teams represent the strongest U.S. hope to end the drought during which Europeans have won all 87 medals since luge became a Winter Olympic sport. The Arctic Evel Knievels are so confident heading into Friday’s one-day, two-heat showdown at the Spiral that they’re willing to toss a little trash at their haughty rivals from the continent.

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“We’ve got them on their toes, and that’s nice,” Sheer said. “We had to endure their snide comments for a long time. We were literally the laughingstocks of the World Cup circuit, but they can’t laugh at us any more because we showed we can beat them. I mean, people in Europe used to run to the curves to see America crash. Now they run to see us drive a line. Instead of looking for some carnage, they’re looking to see how it’s done.”

Said partner Thorpe: “We’re not intimidated. We want to beat these guys. We’re hungry. We want the respect that comes with a medal.”

They want to hear that anthem on the medal podium--Mojo Nixon’s as well as Francis Scott Key’s.

“If U.S. volleyball has Magnum, P.I. as their captain, we certainly could find someone who stands for all we believe in to be our captain,” said Sheer, who got into sledding on a ski trip in Lake Placid, N.Y., when he saw a U.S. Luge Assn. ad on the side of a van and called the number.

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Now, when he’s not on ice, Sheer plays drums with the alternative rock group Jim and made the decision to write Nixon, informing him of his honorary captaincy.

A natural union, Sheer said, of “the craziest rocker and, maybe, the craziest sport.”

The pumped Nixon responded by inviting the group to join him while they were in San Diego recently at the Olympic training center there.

One result: A new Nixon recording, “Luge Team U.S.A.,” with Sheer on drums and two members of The Beat Farmers band joining in.

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Mojo aside, Grimmette-Martin and Thorpe-Sheer will have to be humming Friday.

Among the competition: defending Olympic champions Kurt Brugger and Wilfried Huber of Italy; the long-dominant German team of Steven Krausse and Jan Behrendt, who have silver, gold and bronze from the last three Olympics, and the formidable Austrian brothers team of Tobias and Markus Schiegl.

Seldom, however, has a team blitzed the World Cup the way Grimmette and Martin did, and they have continued to turn in the best training times here.

“Maybe we’re the sled to beat, but I don’t want to be overconfident,” Martin said. “Everybody points for this race. I mean, a lot of teams tend to lay back during World Cup, working on different things, getting ready for the Olympics. Sometimes it’s hard to measure.”

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Martin, 24, is 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds. He is the bottom man, he said, “for the ergonomics of the sled.” He can hide under the 6-1, 200-pound Grimmette, 27, and that creates better aerodynamics. “Besides,” he said, “it would look pretty silly the other way around.”

Grimmette began serious sledding at 14 in his hometown of Muskegon, Mich., where a big-screen rooting party is being planned for Friday.

The curly haired Martin, who comes from Palo Alto and looks as though he should be on a surfboard, also discovered luge at 14. His mother, Nancy, saw a newspaper ad about former U.S. Olympian and luge recruiter Bonny Warner holding a sled-on-wheels clinic and decided “we should go out and try this,” Martin said. “I think she wanted to do it as much as I did. I’ve always liked to try different things.”

Martin was an alternate at the ’94 Olympics with former partner Dan Warren, but after they split and he had a futile season as a single, he was thinking of quitting when Grimmette phoned in the spring of ’96.

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Grimmette and former partner Jon Edwards had finished fourth in the ’94 Games--the best Olympic finish in U.S. history--but they separated after the next season, and his new partnership with Larry Dolan was short-lived.

“I was actually trying to do more singles that year to see if I liked it, but I figured out that doubles is what I loved,” Grimmette said.

Because they had yet to qualify for the national team as partners, Grimmette-Martin had to pay their way to their first World Cup race in Lillehammer in December ’96, where they finished third. They did not have to pay their way again. They also did not reach the medal podium again during a season dominated by their good friends, Thorpe and Sheer. The results were reversed in 1997-98, however.

Improving their starts and benefiting from experience, Grimmette-Martin soared, while Thorpe-Sheer struggled for reasons they still can’t fathom.

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“We simply lost speed, and I can’t tell you why,” Sheer said. “We’re still working on it.”

A late-season broken wrist suffered by Thorpe, who still wears a soft cast and might face surgery, hasn’t helped.

Balance is critical, particularly in doubles, where the top man uses his legs and the bottom his shoulders to guide the sled. Pre-race communication, along with visualization of the course, is mandatory. The partners can’t communicate during their runs. They have to lie back and relax, but not to the extent of getting lost in any Mojo Nixon lyrics.

The hope is that the U.S. lugers can blast hits like “Elvis Is Everywhere” and “I Want to Put My Face on a Nuclear Bomb” at the victory party.

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