Mark Grimmette knows the drill. In non-Olympic years, the word "luge" disappears from the American sports vocabulary. During the Olympics, the stars move the needle. The U.S. hockey team has the money. Lindsey Vonn's right shin will receive more attention in one day than the entire luge team will during the fortnight.
But Grimmette's got the goods. Vancouver represents his fifth Olympics, and he has the respect of his peers and Olympic silver and bronze medals in luge doubles, all of which outweigh the superficial fickleness of the star culture.
Respect manifested itself in a surprising way when Grimmette, 39, was named the American flag bearer for Friday night's opening ceremonies. Grimmette found out from his doubles partner Brian Martin that the captains from each of the sports had selected him.
"I was very surprised and when my teammate told me, we sat in the room for a half an hour not saying anything," he said. "My hands were shaking, and even this morning I'm a little bit shaky. But this team is made up of a lot of great men, a lot of great women, and for them to have voted me to carry the flag, the hair is standing on the back of my neck. It's a great honor."
Even without the attention, Grimmette is nonetheless one of the pillars of American luge. He was on one of only two American luge doubles teams to medal. He is on the executive board of USA Luge. In Grimmette's first Olympics, the 1994 Lillehammer Games, he finished fourth with partner Jonathan Edwards, missing bronze by a hair. In a sport dominated by Italians and Germans, it was a high point in the growth of the sport in the States. Gordy Sheer, who is now the marketing director for USA Luge, finished fifth in 1994 and later won a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
"When I first got into it, the U.S. team was the example of what not to do when you go down the track, and the European nations would come to the track and watch us for maybe a little bit of excitement," Grimmette said. "But slowly over the years, Gordy Sheer and I pushed one another and the camaraderie that we had with one another pushed us more into the right direction.
"Muskegon State Park is where I got my start and luge kind of came to me. When I was 14 years old, I heard some heavy machinery across the street from where I grew up. When I went over to investigate, there were some bulldozers tearing the place up," Grimmette recalled. "And I asked what they were doing and they told me they were building a luge track. I had no idea what luge was and they were asking for volunteers to help build it. I liked construction and I liked building things at home, so I hammered a few nails and helped build part of the track."
And so, when the Americans make their entrance Friday night, Grimmette will be carrying the flag. But he is still here to win, as well.
"Brian said when he came out of the room, the term 'elder statesman' came out a lot," Grimmette said. "I just hope that it wasn't 'elderly' statesman."