'World's best' takes back seat to winners Walker falls far short in push for bobsled's gold

February 17, 1992|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Staff Writer

LA PLAGNE, France -- You could call it the humbling of Herschel Walker.

Earlier in the week, before the beginning of the Olympic two-man bobsled competition, Walker, the famous halfback-turned-bobsledder, said he was now "the best [bobsled] pusher in the world" despite his almost total lack of training.

But when the two-man was over yesterday on a cool, windy afternoon high in the Alps, the world's "best" was in seventh place, far behind the gold-medal winners from Switzerland, Gustav Weder and Donat Acklin.

A seventh-place finish was nothing short of remarkable for a bobsledder in his first international competition -- the Olympics no less. But it was far short of the "best in the world."

Rudolf Lochner and Markus Zimmerman, in Germany's first sled, took the silver medal, and the second German sled of Christoph Langen and Gunther Eger took the bronze.

USA II, with Brian Richardson and former Maryland tight end Greg Harrell, of Columbia, Md., was 24th. First-day leaders Mark Taut and Lenny Paul of Great Britain had a rough third run and finished sixth.

Walker would not say he had been humbled, but it was clear he had learned a lesson from the career bobsledders who finished ahead of him, demonstrating that there was more to the sport than just the raw power and speed Walker possesses.

"Experience means a lot," Walker said. "It's true in football, and it's true here."

Walker jumped into driver Brian Shimer's sled too soon on his first run Saturday, a mistake that, according to U.S. coach John Philbin, all but eliminated them from medal contention before they'd gone even 100 yards down the hill.

Walker's anticipated burst at the start never came. He had predicted times in the five-second range for the 50-meter start, but the sled's two times yesterday were 6.11 and 6.07 seconds, nowhere near the times of 5.99 and 5.98 registered by silver medalists Lochner and Zimmerman of Germany, respectively.

Walker also failed to perform near his high pushing standard of the Olympic trials. His total push time was slower than that of nine other sleds.

The pusher's chief responsibility is to get the sled started by pushing it from behind for seven or eight strides. Then he jumps into the sled and puts his head down, letting the driver maneuver the sled down the course.

Most of the other top racers in the event had trained for years. Walker has just dabbled in the bobsled between football seasons the past few years.

Certainly, Walker's performance was an indication of how big he could be in the sport if he turned his attention to it full time. He not only corrected his original problem of jumping in the sled too soon, but his final run also was easily his best.

"If they'd put four runs together like that last one, you'd be looking at a medal," Philbin said. "Herschel came a long way, I don't think there's any doubt that you're looking at a medalist were [Herschel] to be involved in the sport all the time."

The United States has not won a bobsled medal since 1956.

But full-time practice is an impossibility for Walker as long as he is playing football, and there isn't much doubt he will continue to play as long as he gets salaries such as the $1.7 million he earned from the Minnesota Vikings last season.

Plus, Walker is something of an iconoclast who has said in the past that he might rather retire from football and become an FBI agent. Yesterday he was vague on the issue of whether he'd continue bobsledding and return to the Olympics in 1994.

"Lord willing, you might see me back here [in 1994]," he said. "But I don't know what I'll be doing. I never like to predict what Herschel might be doing at any time. A year from now. Two years. Any time. I just don't know."

He gets to get back on the mountain again this week in the four-man competition, which should be another test of his emerging bobsledding skill. It is the competition that he has enjoyed in the Olympics, he said. The international atmosphere hasn't fazed him.

"I didn't come here to look at the crowds or the mountains or to play in the snow," he said. "I came here to compete and to win. I didn't like losing today, but I've won a lot and lost a lot, so I know what to expect. I just love to compete. And the competition is great here."

He might have added: It's a little better than he expected.

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