Three years ago this month, Steve Mesler stood alongside a bobsled track outside Turin, Italy, with steam coming from his ears. He had traveled all that way, trained for all those years, spent all that time and made so little money, and the only thing he took home was the experience of competing in the Olympics.
If he wanted a good time, he would have gone sledding at Chestnut Ridge. He envisioned himself finally winning something for Buffalo. He even had a recurring dream about walking into his parents' home on the West Side with a gold medal draped around his neck.
And his team finished seventh.
On Tuesday, Mesler stood alongside a bobsled track in Lake Placid, still steaming about USA-1's performance in the 2006 Winter Games and still dreaming about making good on a goal he had been chasing for two decades. He's petrified of joining all the tortured teams and athletes in this town's history who have come up short.
"We have the Sabres, and we have the Bills," Mesler said by telephone. "It's not like they've given us much hope. I think I can do that. Buffalo has had its ups and downs, and we know I have. Buffalo is still home. It's still going to be the first place I bring my medal when I get it."
At age 30, the City Honors graduate figures he has one more crack, next February, to win the whole thing in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver before retiring. He's in Lake Placid training for next week's four-man competition in the World Championships. He's a push athlete, the third man aboard, for the USA-1 sled that has been dubbed "Night Train."
Mesler's team is ranked fourth in the world despite skipping two races. They finished in the top three six times in the seven other races, including a win last week in Park City, Utah. They finished second earlier in Whistler, British Columbia, on the very track where the Olympics races will be held next winter.
"I haven't gone into these major championships without high standards," he said. "There are two things I haven't done: win a world championship and win an Olympic medal. This is my last chance to win a world championship, and I think we can. Next year is probably my last chance to win [at the Olympics]."
It's hard not to pull for the guy after everything he has been through. For years, he's been training in Calgary and scraping together nickels with a gold medal in mind. He makes only $2,000 a month, which barely covers his food, rent and coaching fees. Times are tougher, sponsors leaner, with today's economy. He picks up extra cash for running, scrounges a few bucks playing in poker tournaments while traveling on the World Cup circuit.
No wonder he found it nauseating last week while listening to Alex Rodriguez claim the pressure to perform contributed to him doing steroids. Boy, it must be tough for A-Rod to pocket more money per game than Mesler does in a year. Mesler said he never touched steroids. He wants a clear conscience. He wants to show kids that goals can be reached the old-fashioned way, through hard work and perseverance.
Talk about performing under pressure, Mesler and his girlfriend were held up at gunpoint a few years ago in a Houston parking garage. Mesler had a Glock to his head while two thugs snatched his girlfriend's purse, stole a pair of headphones and $20 and took off. So, please, spare him the bit about the weight of expectations.
"Every four years, I'm under pressure to be the best in the world," Mesler said. "I find a way to do it without cheating. . . . I don't have to have this moment that I was lying to myself and to others. For the rest of my life, I want to talk about the things I've done and done the right way."