Walker gives big push to U.S. bobsled program Football star tackles new sport with flair

February 04, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

TALLOIRES, France -- From football to ballet, taekwondo to television, Herschel Walker has spent a career reinventing himself.

Tell him he can't, and he proves that he can.

Now he is prepared to shove a 600-pound vehicle so that he can sit like a piece of luggage and slide 90 mph down a mile-long, serpentine track of ice.

"I love roller coasters," he said. "But this is a roller coaster out of control. You are your own seat belt."

Meet the world's greatest bobsled pusher.

After winning the Heisman Trophy, appearing with the Fort Worth (Texas) Ballet, earning a black belt in taekwondo and serving as a host of a children's fitness show, Walker will take on the Winter Olympics.

A sport that lures technicians, royals and warm-weather curiosities has roped in a fading football star who is from Georgia, lives in Dallas and plays for the Minnesota Vikings.

For now, at least.

"This is not normal," he said. "This is very un-normal. It's strange."

Actually, the story of how Walker became the brakeman on the top U.S. two- and four-man sleds fits the setting.

In a hotel lobby, in a medieval village, overlooking a shimmering lake surrounded by Alpine peaks, Walker sat yesterday and talked of the rage that fueled his desire to become an Olympian.

His career with the Vikings may be sliding into oblivion, but his life as a bobsledder is just beginning. In the United States, the rumors flash that he is about to be traded to the Atlanta Falcons. In France, he prepares to slide for gold.

"There has been so much raging in me the last few years," he said, "I haven't had a chance to really play football."

The schoolboy from Wrightsville, Ga., who didn't see his first snowfall until he was 10, is a 29-year-old man grown comfortable in a climate of ice and snow.

"My parents still don't understand it," he said. "It's hard to explain it to them. What they've seen is the Soap Box Derby. But bobsled is totally different. It's on ice. And there are no wheels."

In bobsled, there are G-forces that transform strong men into quivering hunks of flesh. There is bitter cold. There is impending danger on every curve.

Walker said he loves the competition. Besides, it's a lot easier pushing a sled than it is slamming into Lawrence Taylor.

Willie Gault of the Los Angeles Raiders lured Walker to the sport after they appeared together at the 1989 Superstars competition. Walker was the perfect push-man: a world-class sprinter with the body of a snow plow.

It takes speed and strength to push a sled 50 meters down an icy track. Then, it takes agility to hop on a vehicle that is taking off at 28 mph.

"You start out like a raging bull and turn into Tinkerbell," Walker said.

Walker has become a savior for the American team, which hasn't won an Olympic medal since 1956 and which survived its usual, once-every-four-years upheaval. This time, the celebrity bobsled wannabes, Gault and Edwin Moses, initiated a lawsuit to overturn the first set of trials results. An arbitrator agreed, and a new round was held last month in Altenberg, Germany.

Walker showed up for his previously scheduled two-man trial and won. Then, he turned in the best time to make the four-man team.

"I was like a thoroughbred sitting around in a chute," he said. "In the second trial, no one took me seriously. I said, 'I'm going to win it. This belongs to me. I've worked too hard not to win.' "

Even though Walker has appeared in only one World Cup race, placing 10th, he is the sport's fastest pusher. Other athletes come up to him and ask him how he builds his body. When he tells them his secret -- 2,500 sit-ups and 1,000 push-ups a day -- they act surprised.

"They figure I must be weight training and I'm afraid to give away any secrets," he said. "But I've never touched a weight."

Nope. The only weight Walker will shove is a sled. He'll make his Olympic debut Feb. 15 in the two-man competition. His partner will be Brian Shimer, from that well-known bobsled hot spot of Naples, Fla.

Shimer, his father, Bud, and a bank own the second-hand sled. To finance the $20,000 deal with a Swiss driver, Shimer's father took out a second mortgage.

"Sort of amazing that we're in a used sled, we're in the Olympics and we both grew up in the South," Shimer said. "Herschel is a tremendous athlete. His ability speaks for itself. I would have to say that he is the best pusher in the world."

But you don't want to be his tailor.

When Walker showed up to receive his official Olympic jeans, there was a slight problem. Seems a man with 29 1/2 -inch thighs and a 30-inch waist is hard to fit. The solution: Bring out jeans with a 40-inch waist and call a seamstress.

"I didn't come here for the uniform," Walker said. "I came here to climb a mountain. And get a gold medal."

Ah, but after the Games, Walker plans to try another sport. At least he won't have to slide for a thrill.

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