NAPLES — It was the last race of the last Olympics in his 14-year career. Racing on American soil, Brian Shimer drove his four-man bobsled team to a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
The third-place finish ended a 46-year medal drought in the sport for the U.S. men and came during the country’s patriotic fervor less than six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time, Shimer, a Naples native, was convinced nothing could top that moment.
Eight years later, the Naples High graduate is reconsidering.
On Saturday, a day before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games ended in Vancouver, the United States cruised to victory in the four-man event. Shimer, 47, wasn’t in the bobsled, but was the head coach of the first American team to win the gold medal since 1948.
“I’m not sure too many things in life will match that,” Shimer said of his bronze medal, “but it was pretty close when we won Olympic gold (in Vancouver). That’s as close as I’ll ever come to those feelings in Salt Lake City.”
On an unforgivingly fast course — there were six crashes in one turn alone on the first day of four-man competition — driver Steve Holcomb guided the USA-1 sled flawlessly. The Americans set course records their first two runs and won gold by 0.38 seconds, considered a comfortable margin of victory in bobsleigh.
After the U.S. team finished its fourth and final run crash-free, the Americans erupted from their sled in celebration. Right next to them was Shimer, embracing the gold medal he’d been after since his Olympic debut as a pusher at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta.
“When Steve came down the last run still with a decisive win … it was such a huge relief of finally doing it, ending a 62-year drought,” Shimer said. “After 25 years in the sport trying to achieve that and coaching Steve and his team to Olympic gold, it’s an achievement I guess here in a few more days I’ll realize. I’m still on cloud nine.”
Victorious Olympic coaches do not receive medals like their athletes. After Holcomb’s victory Saturday, Shimer was awarded a medal that meant just as much.
A few years ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee created the Order of Ikkos Medallion. Named for the first recorded coach during the Games in ancient Greece, the medallion is given by a medal-winning athlete to the coach he feels best prepared him for the Olympics.
Holcomb, who got choked up and couldn’t give the speech he had rehearsed for his coach, presented Shimer with the Order of Ikkos medal shortly after accepting the gold.
“It was a very emotional time, a special time for the team,” Shimer said. “It was a very touching moment for me. It made it all worth it.”
Following a whirlwind weekend in Vancouver, Shimer arrived home in Naples — where he was born and raised — late Monday night. He’ll have a few weeks to spend with his wife, Ann-Marie, and children Briana, 4, and Bode, 2, then he’s back on the road for a race in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Though the Olympics come every four years, being a bobsledder and now a coach has been a full-time job for Shimer since graduating from Morehead (Ky.) State in the mid-1980s. With two young kids at home, though, being on the road for six months a year has taken its toll.
Shimer knows, however, that he can’t walk away from the sport he loves just yet. Not with Team USA on the rise. In addition to winning their first gold medal in a generation, the Americans won the world championships in 2009 for the first time in 50 years.
He has yet to make a steadfast commitment, but right now Shimer thinks he’ll be back for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where the United States will look for back-to-back gold for the first time since the 1930s.
“Now that we’ve broken through, I would like to start that dominance again that we had back in the late ’20s,” Shimer said. “Hopefully we can start another era of U.S. Bobsled and continue to bring home Olympic champions.
“With this momentum we have now, my intentions are to continue on and try to duplicate it. I guess gold and silver would be the next step. We have the talent to do that and achieve that.”