I've stood close to many Olympians. Only once have I put my life in the hands of one.
The athlete is John Napier, a sergeant in the National Guard and a natural-born bobsled pilot.
He'll compete Saturday and Sunday in the 2-man bob and then come back next Friday and Saturday and throw down four runs in the 4-man competition. Afterward, a superior officer somewhere will decide whether Napier will join his unit in Afghanistan.
He dearly wants to go.
About five years ago after an international competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., I was offered a ride from the top of the mile-long track. Since "civilian" rides always start at a lower, slower spot, I quickly said, "yes," before anyone could change their minds--including me.Then I saw my driver: a gangly teenager who looked like he was outgrowing his clothes before my eyes. He stuck out his hand.
I paused to assess my chances of survival and then stuck out my hand.
"I'm John. Just one thing. Don't let your helmet hit me in the back on the way down. I'll be kind of busy," he said.
"OK," I replied weakly (I'm not sure about the OK part. I am sure about the weakly part).
I slipped in behind Napier. Someone slid in behind me. The fourth person--the brakeman--and some track workers gave us a shove.
For a minute, it was like being inside a metal trash can with little demons pounding the outside with Louisville Sluggers. Only louder.
The metal cylinder that contained my life rolled violently and the G forces made my head felt like a cement block on top of a soda straw.
To the best of my knowledge, my helmet never tapped Napier's back. If it did, he was too much of a gentleman to mention it.
Instead, at the finish line, Napier stuck out his hand and said, "I didn't shake you up too much, did I?"
Only then did I learn that the natural born part was true. His parents, both bobsledders, brought him to the track from the time he was an infant.
He began driving bobsleds when he was 9. No one has driven the Lake Placid hill more than John Napier, who built his home in the woods just beyond the track.
His dad died a few years ago and the entire bobsled community in his hometown adopted him.
This season, he won his first World Cup medals--at home--and there were many tears.
If the military doesn't use him as a recruiting model, Napier could end up overseas, just one of the thousands of service members in whose hands we place our lives.
I've already done that and can tell you that Napier delivers