Jim Pringle and David Maddox left the Vineyard last weekend bound for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but don't expect to see the two buddies from Vineyard Haven lighting the torch, waving Old Glory or snagging medals.
They've got to work to do down at the luge track.
Far from glamorous, Mr. Pringle's official job title is sweeper, which entails grabbing a push broom to keep the tracks clear of snow or anything else that might land on the icy, nearly mile-long track. Mr. Maddox, himself a former competitive luge racer, has the job of marshall, keeping order among the spectators.
"We may be the lowest ones on the totem pole," Mr. Pringle said last week. Both men had to pony up their own airfare, and their accommodations are at the local middle school.
But neither Mr. Pringle, the assistant harbor master in Tisbury, nor Mr. Maddox, a part-time carpenter, is complaining. They get to spend the better part of the next 10 days in the thick of Olympic competition, with an up-close view of luge racers speeding down the mountainside on fiberglass sleds at speeds of better than 90 miles per hour.
Just how did two guys from the Vineyard end up with backstage passes to the luge track? It's a who-you-know kind of explanation.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Maddox was an Olympic hopeful in the luge. A baseball player and hockey goalie in his high school days, he didn't get turned on to the sport until the ripe age of 28. Fortunately, his sister lived near Lake Placid, N.Y., and before long, Mr. Maddox was constructing his own sleds, heading to the Adirondacks for training and competing on an international level.
He made the U.S. team in 1983 but was an alternate for the Olympic games in Sarajevo the next year. Hired as a coach the next year, Mr. Maddox retired from the national team in 1985.
The upshot of all that experience is that Mr. Maddox has serious connections in the world of luge. Last summer, one of his old racing pals, now in charge of luge team organizing, came to the Island to train officials for the Salt Lake City races. Both Mr. Maddox and Mr. Pringle signed up and passed the test.
While no luge racer, Mr. Pringle has actually spent some time on one, just not on a real track. "I was on one last Sunday at the Tashmoo Overlook," he said. "They're very maneuverable, and you'd be surprised how fast."
Over the years, Mr. Pringle also hosted various luge racers (friends of Mr. Maddox) who came to the Island. And when he owned the old Cozy's restaurant in the 1980s, he sold luge burgers. The slogan was to-the-point: "They go down fast."
Speed, of course, is the major selling point of the sport, and the Utah Olympic Park track is touted as the world's fastest. Olympic racers will be traveling at twice the Island's highway speed limit.
That's how Mr. Maddox put it to a classroom of fourth graders at the Tisbury School last week when he and Mr. Pringle volunteered to headline show-and-tell for that day. They showed up with all the gear in tow: two sleds, a helmet, a lime green racing suit and gloves with spiked fingers.
"You lie down as flat as you can with your head back. But you've gotta steer. You push on these with the inside of your calves," Mr. Maddox explained, pointing to the long runners that jut out. "Or you steer with the shoulder. The runners are round, not sharp. It's very easy to lose control."
Mr. Pringle's daughter, Julie, is in the class, and while she donned a suit, helmet and visor, it didn't take long for the hands to go up. "Has anyone ever died on the luge?" one boy asked.
The answer, sadly, was yes. As Mr. Maddox explained, some tracks are so fast that racers can simply black out from the speed. Tracks start from an elevated level, about two or three stories high, Mr. Maddox said.
"You're at 40 miles per hour in 50 feet," he said. "It doesn't take long to get up to speed."
But most tracks these days send racers through a first loop, known by lugers as a kreisel, to reduce their velocity and cut down on injuries. "Serious injuries don't happen a whole lot," he said. "You get bumps and bruises."
Some racers wear the equivalent of a flak jacket, but it's not for protection. It's ballast to increase speed, allowed in the rules so lighter racers can compensate in competition against heavier contenders. Mr. Maddox handed his ballast vest over to the kids. It was just a gnarly old plaid shirt covered in strips of duct tape that felt like a 10-pound hunk of lead.
Kids were fascinated to learn that Mr. Maddox actually hand built both his luges back in the days when Americans were up against European teams whose professional engineers were constructing luges and testing them in wind tunnels. He guessed it took him about 200 hours to build one, from forming the fiberglass shell to welding on the runners.
Racers will spend hours polishing their steel runners on race day. "These runners you could hold up and see your reflection," he said.
Mr. Maddox still races occasionally. Last month, he was back at Lake Placid for a masters event. And he loves to spread the word about luge. He turned his nephew on to the sport at age six, and the kid went on to become national champion and compete in Nagano in 1998.
Together, Mr. Maddox and Mr. Pringle display an infectious enthusiasm for the sport. They even take turns making fun of that other sport that uses the same track: bobsledding.
"Bobsleds, they chew up the track, and they sound like a garbage can comin' down," said Mr. Pringle.
"They run and jump into a small VW, and they have brakes," said Mr. Maddox. "In luge, you're doing something 100 per cent of the time."
As for brakes, the kids were curious. Mr. Maddox pointed out that braking doesn't happen until the very end. You just sit up, grab hold of the front runners and pull up, digging the rear runners into the ice.
The Island's two emissaries to the luge track will be on official race duty Sunday, but you'll have to stay up late to catch the event on television. Men's singles coverage airs at 11 p.m. and then again at 4 p.m. on Monday. Detailed schedules can be found on the Internet at www.nbcolympics.com.
You can bet that Mr. Pringle's family will be looking hard at that TV screen to see their man doing his part to keep the track free of clutter and slick as can be.