NAGANO - American luge racers know how to handle not winning an Olympic medal. In 34 years of racing the Americans had never reached the Olympic podium.
When they finally won two medals in the same race Friday they didn't know how to act. But they did a good job with happy, ecstatic and delirious.
"I don't know where that came from," said Gordy Sheer after he and his partner Chris Thorpe won the silver medal in men's luge doubles. "I don't know what to say."
"This is crazier than I thought it could be," said Mark Grimmette, moments after he and Brian Martin took bronze. "The only thing that could have been sweeter was if both of us (U.S. teams) tied for the gold medal."
The German pair of Stefan Krausse and Jan Behrendt won the gold, their second in the event, to go with a silver and a bronze. They were only .022 seconds ahead of Thorpe and Sheer in two runs down the Spiral course.
The Americans had hopes of one medal because Thorpe and Scheer won the World Cup Championship in 1996-97 and Grimmette and Martin have already clinched this year's title.
"We figured we should win something," said U.S. coach Wolfgang Schaedler. "But to win two is fantastic. The weight of the whole Rocky Mountain range just dropped from my shoulders."
The Americans were second and third after the first run, which only made their teammates nervous because U.S. lugers have been close before only to find disappointment.
But this time they wouldn't be denied. Racing in reverse order of their first-run finish, Grimmette and Martin set a course record and moved into first place. With only two sleds to go that guaranteed them a medal and the celebration began.
Then Thorpe and Sheer broke the course record and they moved into first. As the Americans celebrated with hugs and high fives, they watched anxiously as the Germans began their final run. They had the third slowest run, but it was fast enough for the gold.
"I'm still speechless," said Sheer about 30 minutes after the race. "I wasn't expecting anything here to tell you the truth. We weren't thinking about results in this race. That's the thing to do, I guess. We did a really good job of taking the pressure off of ourselves with our dismal performance in the World Cup season.
"Last night Mark said to me, 'You guys just need to slide like you did in Park City (Utah).' So in the second run we just relaxed and let the sled ride. We made up a lot of time on the bottom."
Both teams stayed in Salt Lake City to get in extra practice runs at the new Park City bobsled and luge track while the singles lugers came to Nagano. They said the extra practice and a lucky break paid off.
Thorpe broke his hand in singles practice in January, so he had to stay off the sled. That left Sheer with time on his hands to think about a World Cup season that had produced nothing higher than third place.
"Brian let me take some practice runs with him," said Sheer. "We could see if we were doing something different. We really worked together. "Salt Lake was the turning point for us. On the last day we had a mini-race and they beat us by a couple of hundreths of a second. That was a confidence builder because they had been killing us."
"The new facility in Salt Lake is phenomenal. It's world class. It helped our confidence."
Grimmette said he and Martin had been working hard the last two years.
"Brian and I had to do a lot of work to catch up to Chris and Gordy," he said. "During the summer I set a goal. I wanted to be in the top three once in a World Cup race, and we were kind of surprised at how well we did."
Everyone in the American luge program agreed the biggest benefit of breaking the medal barrier would be the recognition it would bring the sport and how it would help the development program.
"Everyone likes to pull for a winner," said Martin. "This will help our sport. There were a lot of Americans supporting us today and it felt great."
Thorpe said Olympic success is just the culmination of a 10-year climb from the bottom of the luge world.
"Now we've got some respect," he said. "Now we can hold our own and our junior program can hold their own. We have a great program."
"Winning an Olympic medal means a lot for our program because it's more high profile than the World Cup," said Grimmette. "It's got to do some great things for our program."
"We broke the barrier, I guess," said Sheer. "And now it's up to someone else to get the gold."
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