US luge racer's biggest thrill was carrying flag at opening ceremony

Frank Masley is spending his next few days at the Winter Olympics riding a sled no bigger than a snow shovel at 80 m.p.h. Amazingly, however, his biggest thrill as an athlete promises to be the stroll he took around Kosevo Stadium the other day.

This wasn't just any walk. It was the parade of the athletes into the opening ceremony, and there at the head of the largest contingent was Masley, proudly hoisting Old Glory for the benefit of 125 other United States team members.

What made the moment extra special was that he had been elected flag-bearer by his colleagues. It was the sort of honor that raises goosebumps even on a luger.

Or maybe especially on a luger, whose sport is so obscure in the United States that the mention of it sometimes prompts the joking response, ''Oh, the luge, isn't that a museum in Paris?''

You could probably accomodate the US luge community in a quonset hut. But here these fearless competitors are lodged with all the other athletes at the Olympic Village.

It was here that Masley's ''unveiling'' to the public took place. Standing on a chair at a makeshift press conference after the opening ceremony, Masley described his dream-of-a-lifetime election.

''At a meeting of team captains, every sport nominates someone as a flag-bearer, and it happened to be me for the luge team,'' he said. ''No luger had ever carried the American flag before, and so the argument was made that ours is an unknown, but up-and-coming sport that could use a big break like this.''

That the other captains agreed really delighted this former high school pole vaulter and cross-country runner from Newark, Del., who faced stiff competition from skier Phil Mahre and hockey player John Harrington, a member of the the 1980 gold medal-winning squad.

His selection also was cause for wild celebrating among his fellow sliders.

Not suprisingly, the lugers are a very close-knit group, and only days before the big announcment their togetherness had gotten them in and out of some trouble.

Running late for practice, six of them crowded into a tiny dormitory elevator despite the posted four-person limit. For 20 minutes they were stuck between floors - then they found a solution.

''We got the idea to all jump up at the same time,'' Masley recounted. ''We practiced a few times until we were all on the count. With eveybody in the air, the elevator dislodged itself just enough to rise up and let us off.''

Though one of America's top lugers, the 6 ft. 1 in. 170-lb. Masley very nearly didn't make the team. He crashed during the qualifying trials at Lake Placid, site of the only luge course in the Western Hemishphere. Though dazed, he managed to remount his sled and cross the finish line - some 10 seconds behind schedule.

Failure to finish would have put him out right then. ''I knew I could come back,'' he said, ''but I had to be cautious and keep my head up a little more than I wanted in order to watch the track.''

Lugers ride feet first from a prostrate position that cuts down wind resistance. As much as possible, the sledder tries to peer down his body at the course in front of him without raising his head.

Masley's altered strategy allowed him to secure the third and last men's singles spot. He also competes in the doubles with Ray Batemen, whose brother, Doug, is a US team member as well. The women have only a singles competition.

The luge, which is the only Olympic sport timed to a thousandth of a second, made its Olympic debut in 1964. The United States has never won a luge medal, and Masley says a top 10 finish here on Mt. Trebevic's combination luge-bobsled track would be an encouraging result for any of Uncle Sam's sliders.

He had a personal best time here on the last of four training runs, coming within a second of the leader. Still, he says that would only put him 15th to 20 th in the four-race competition that ends Sunday.

And Masley is no run-of-the-mill luger. A three-time US champion, he was 10th in last year's world championships and seventh in a World Cup event at Lake Placid, where he has spent much of his time since completing a civil engineering degree at Delaware Technical and Commmunity College in 1981. Considering the obscurity of luge in the United States, these efforts verge on the phenomenal.

But still, why would anyone hurdle down a chute of glare ice at such blinding speeds? ''To make the Olympic team,'' comes his straightforward answer.

His first step in that direction came after the 1976 Winter Games, when as an adventurous 16-year-old he headed for Lake Placid to see if the sport he had just seen on TV was for him.

''They don't start you at the top,'' he explains. ''You start low on the course and work on one curve at a time until you're comfortable with the speed. You keep working your way up until you can handle the entire run.''

By 1980 he had learned enough to make the Olympic team, finishing 28th.

This year Frank is riding on a sled he made himself, copying East German and Russian designs. The parts cost $600 out of his own pocket and countless hours of fine tuning to what looks like an exceeedingly simple piece of equipment.

The sled has a steering rein, but while earlier lugers tended to use this device, Masley and most other current top sliders prefer to use only their bodies. Frank has developed a safecracker's touch for controlling the sled's direction with imperceptible leg and shoulder motions.

Asked if the sensation of negotiating hairpin turns in these canvas-seated rockets was similar to a roller coaster ride, he replies, ''A roller coaster ride is sometimes scarier because you don't have any control of it. You can really control the luge by digging its runners into the ice.''

But doesn't a person have to be crazy to take such rides with only an elbow pad, body suit, and helmet for protection?

''No, crazy people don't make it down the track,'' is his silencing retort.

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