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Medal-less Mesler not done yet

CESANA, Italy -- The characters changed and the details were hazy, but the ending was always the same. Steve Mesler gets out of his car in front of his parents' home on the West Side. He walks through the door with his gold medal, and his closest friends and family are waiting for him in the living room.

He had the recurring dream as he prepared for the 2006 Winter Olympics. He came to Italy looking for a gold medal, but any medal would have worked. It seemed well within reach considering his USA-1 four-man bobsled team was ranked first in the world last season and entered the Games ranked fourth.

Presumably, seventh place wasn't part of the dream, but that's where his team finished Saturday in the Italian Alps. Seventh.

"It's not a nightmare, but it's a terrible, terrible, awful disappointment. There was nothing else to do here but medal," Mesler said. "We had 14 days to suffer and agonize and watch our countrymen go out there one by one on the chopping block. Today was our day. I would love to say we succeeded, but we didn't. We failed."

Give the guy credit for being honest.

Americans repeated the same line throughout the Olympics, how it's about the process and not about the medal. It's become a cliche. It's their way of soothing themselves after they finish 15th, knowing they spent four years working toward a goal and ultimately fell short. Sure, they enjoy the process, but it's about the medal.

For Mesler, it was all about the medal, which is why he was a tortured athlete Saturday. Heck, his team lost to the junior varsity despite having one the top drivers in the world in Todd Hays. USA-2 finished one spot ahead, which tells you something about Mesler's first Olympics. He wasn't thinking big picture afterward, only what was lost.

"It's something I thought about when I stood up at the top," he said. "Was this my last chance? Is this the last time I get to do this? You never know. It wasn't the only shot, but it was a shot. This was a huge shot. And it's gone."

It was yet another underachieving American team going home with nothing but a learning experience. Mesler didn't come here to learn. He came here to win -- something. They were all but finished Friday after getting behind by nearly a half-second, a lifetime in bobsled, after the first two runs. They wound up a full second behind Germany, which won, and .51 seconds behind Switzerland, which won the bronze.

No wonder he was furious. He spent four years living and training in Calgary, a terrific place if you have a job. He has a degree in education from the University of Florida, but he couldn't work in Canada because it has strict labor laws. The sport gave him enough money to survive, but he's basically broke.

And that was OK, so long as he came home with a medal.

It was always about the medal. He started thinking about being an Olympian when he was 11 years old and a national junior track competitor and a star at City Honors High School. He earned a scholarship, competed in the decathlon and dreamed about winning gold.

Darned right it's about the medal. It was the source of every workout, every meal, everything he did in life. In Mesler's world, it's so much about the medal that he's going to resume training after he decompresses in Buffalo for a few days. Heck, judging by the look on his face Saturday, he was ready to push a bobsled back to Olympic Village.

There's something to be said for going down a water slide in a garbage can with three buddies, but it takes discipline to train for the Olympics. I'm still not sure who's wired up better, the athletes or everybody else. Working out for the bobsled team can get tedious after a while, but Mesler proved what happens when you're committed to a goal. This guy is driven.

Soon, he'll be a driver.

Hays announced his retirement, and Mesler will slide into the pilot's seat and start working on unfinished business. He's a star in Germany, but he could walk down Delaware Avenue and go unnoticed. Basically, here's his job description: run fast, push hard and pray, even though he had a chaplain on board Saturday.

USA-1 is a four-chapter book in itself.

Brock Kreitzburg is a chaplain at a retirement community. He graduated from the University of Toledo, where he was an all-Mid-American Conference wide receiver and track athlete. He signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but was cut in minicamp in 1999.

Hays was a legend in bobsled and the face of this team. Last year, he ran over his own leg and suffered a gash that required 47 stitches. The Texan is your run-of-the-mill college linebacker turned kickboxer turned bobsled driver. He piloted the USA-1 team to a silver medal four years ago in Salt Lake City, ending a 46-year medal drought and confirming that chances for a U.S. medal don't come around often.

Pavle Jovanovic was 7 years old when he became infatuated with the bobsled while watching on television during the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, his parents' homeland. He was banished from the 2002 Olympics after testing positive for steroids after taking a nutritional supplement.

And then there's Mesler. He might be the most gifted athlete on a team loaded with strength and speed. He's 6-foot-2, 218 pounds and runs like a gazelle. Sure enough, he slipped while getting into his ride Saturday. At that point, USA-1 was so far behind it really didn't matter. They didn't come here for sixth, anyway.

"I was so looking forward to come back and show something off," Mesler said. "Now I'm going to have to wait four years. It's going to be a long, long wait. I'm not going to forget this feeling. It's a God-awful, miserable feeling."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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