Four years ago this coming February, Brian Shimer stood dejected on a mountaintop in Nagano, Japan, after missing a bronze medal in the four-man bobsled by two-hundredths of a second at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games.
The hopes of an entire nation had been put upon the Naples, Fla., resident's shoulders to end a 42-year medal drought for the United States — and he had come up short by less time than it takes to blink an eye.
Shimer, who has defined American bobsledding for 15 years, could have called it quits after what amounted to just the latest setback in a rocky career. But the now 39-year-old Shimer, who is trying to join an elite group by reaching his fifth Olympics in Park City, Utah, did not want to go out that way.
"Missing out on a medal by .02 of a second was really hard to swallow," Shimer said. "I would have retired after Nagano if I had won a medal, but because (the Games) were coming back to our own country and it was going to be in our own back yard, for the first time in five Olympics, I was going to have an advantage."
Experience is something Shimer has plenty of, both good and bad. Two knee operations in the last year and a half resulted in Shimer missing most of the 2000 bobsled season, and he recently found out he had been competing without an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee since his college football days. An MRI prior to his first surgery 18 months ago revealed the malady.
"It was almost to a point where if it was not going to get better it was going to force me into retirement, but it's feeling stronger now," Shimer said. "By our national team trials in October I've got to be 100 percent healthy."
The Olympic Trials for the two-man sled are from Dec. 28-30 and from Jan. 4-6 for the four-man sled.
Shimer's medical ailments, the exodus made by most of his four-man team in order to join the sled being driven by newcomer Todd Hayes, and his age have led his competitors both on the American team and abroad to want to write him off.
"Right now he's got a pretty good hole to dig himself out of after last year," said Matt Roy, executive director of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation who won a World Cup championship with Shimer in 1987 in the four-man sled. "He's definitely not the forerunner for the Games this time, but if he can get his starts back down to being competitive, we know he can drive."
After being the top driver in the United States from 1990 until last year, Roy said the underdog role facing Shimer is something he actually relishes. For three straight Olympics (1992, '94 and '98) the microscope was on him as the best hope for an American medal in the sport now dominated by Europeans.
"I have no vision past these Olympic Games, so this is all or nothing," Shimer said after confirming he would retire after the 2002 Games. "There's nothing to hold back, nothing to be cautious about. I think I'm to the point where I'm not afraid or scared to fail, so that kind of makes me even more of a threat."
All three previous times, unforeseen obstacles the likes of which would have chased most men away for good befell Shimer. In Albertville, France, for the '92 Games, Shimer was paired with football great Herschel Walker in the two-man competition and finished seventh after a horrible start, which Shimer blamed on Walker's lack of preparation.
Then in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway, Shimer's four-man sled became the first in Olympic history to be disqualified because the sled's runners were too warm (by two-tenths of a degree).
The final blow (not counting the narrow miss on the course in Nagano) came before the '98 Games, when bobsled's international governing body considered suspending Shimer for a high testosterone ratio.
He was cleared of the allegations when his representative and the U.S. federation demonstrated that Shimer had an unusual body chemistry that would skew test results.
"The doping scandal in '98 was more of a distraction than anything," Shimer said. "It shouldn't even have been an issue, but somewhere along the line the press got ahold of it and blew it out. People were looking for stories."
Now the three men Shimer has assembled to help him make one last run at an Olympic medal have adopted his "against all odds" mantra and dedicated the coming months to getting their driver and leader onto the medal stand in Salt Lake City.
"I want Brian to win a medal more than I do because I have at least two more chances after this one," said 29-year-old Mike Kohn from Atlanta, where the team has been training. Kohn has been on Shimer's team before.
Paul Wise, who turned 27 Wednesday, also rode with Shimer during the 1998-99 season both on the two-man and the four-man as a brakeman, and he almost is recovered fully from a broken back he suffered that season.
"All we talk about is getting a medal for Brian in 2002," Wise said. "We never talk about what happened in Nagano."
The fourth member of the team is Jason Dorsey, who is recovering from a battle with testicular cancer.
"They all have at least three years of experience, but we're going to have a lot of good athletes out there on about four or five push crews vying for a spot on the Olympic team," U.S. assistant coach Greg Sands said.
With women's bobsledding becoming an official sport, the men's team can take only 10 athletes instead of 12, meaning two sled teams and two alternates as opposed to three. The winners of the two-man and four-man at the Trials automatically earn spots.
Sands and Roy are pulling for Shimer to make it, along with everyone else who has followed the sport, because they'd like to see him finally reap the rewards of 15 years of hard work.
Roy said Shimer winning a medal might be the best story to come out of the Olympics since speed skater Dan Jansen won gold in the 1,000-meter speed skating in 1994, his final event of his career, after dealing with the trauma of losing his sister to cancer.
"I want it now just as much for the United States as I do for myself because it's been such a long drought," Shimer said.