At the unveiling of Canada’s Olympic bobsleigh team last week, the question pretty much posed itself: why was Olympic rookie pilot Lyndon Rush getting backed by some of the best, most experienced brakemen in the business, while four-time Olympian gold and silver medallist Pierre Lueders is competing with a crew of greenhorns—two of them with barely a year’s sledding experience?
Don’t ask Lascelles Brown, the man who propelled Lueders to silver in Turin four years ago but who has since thrown his weight behind Rush. “I don’t wish to get into that, honestly,” he told Maclean’s, though he’s not always been so reticent. Brown’s remark that he’d slide with Lueders again only “if Jesus Christ stood at the bottom of the course and told me to” has quickly become part of bobsleigh mythology.
Nor will Lueders, an imposing man with an uncanny resemblance to Toy Story astronaut Buzz Lightyear, discuss the falling out. Indeed, he doesn’t even find the personnel conflicts and perennial musical chairs of bobsleigh teams very interesting. “The only reason it gets magnified, perhaps, is because it’s four athletes,” he says of the sport. “You look at a hockey team, for instance, decisions are made every day and no one says a word.”
What’s clear is that Lueders and Brown don’t speak and that each man gives the other a wide berth when they find each other in the same room. Whatever happened between the two, the clear beneficiary has been Rush, who at 29 is a decade younger than Lueders and who heads to Vancouver with impressive yet limited and very fresh successes.
Although Rush has shown steady improvement over his five-year career, he’s stepped onto the bobsleigh podium exactly three times—the first as recently as November, when he took World Cup gold in the four-man event in Park City, Utah. That finish preceded a four-man bronze in Cesana, Italy, then a tie for gold in a two-man run in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Brown, 35, had his back in each of those runs. “He’s the horsepower, he’s a big part of why we’ve been doing pretty well, so I can’t complain about having him,” says Rush. “I get to benefit not only from his athletic ability but his experience, which he gained from Pierre—right?”
So what did Brown, a hulking former member of the storied Jamaican bobsled team who became a Canadian citizen just weeks before competing in Turin, learn from Lueders before they parted ways? Maybe exactly that trait that drove them apart, Rush suggests: “A fire. You see it a lot in champions. And both Pierre and Brown are champions. They’re winners. They’re so competitive. Maybe that’s why they’re not together anymore. Because they’re both borderline crazy.”
Rush goes so far as to call Brown “insane. Like, on a big race day he won’t talk to me all day. He’ll just be grumpy as can be. And then before we go on the line he’ll grab me”—here Rush mimes the scene, a rag doll in the clutches of a giant—“and shakes me, and it’s infectious, right? He’s a pretty special individual.”
Yet so is Rush. Mild-mannered, cheerful and self-deprecating, he admits that as a linebacker with the University of Saskatchewan he was “a pretty good player, but I don’t think I had enough fire, to be honest with you. And it’s something I’ve learned from Lascelles—when it’s game time, emotion can really help.”
All this makes the younger pilot the antithesis of the notoriously prickly Lueders. That matters, particularly in a sport that likes to cram robust egos into the pressure cooker of the bobsled. Though the crew must, for the most part, follow the marching orders of their coaches, proven talents can more or less move as free agents. Close observers of the sport note the number of brakemen that will no longer work with Lueders. “Anyone who has achieved anything with Pierre Lueders, none of these people wants anything to do with him,” says someone close to the team. “I don’t know anybody that would buy him a beer or send him flowers.”
Composed and steady, Rush, on the other hand, has a way of handling teammates that’s permitted him to quietly pick up powerhouse crewmen like Brown and move up the ranks. “If you look, the experienced guys are with Lyndon and the inexperienced guys are with Pierre,” says the insider (those Lueder rookies have interesting pedigrees: one is 27-year-old Jesse Lumsden, of the Edmonton Eskimos; another a track and field star, Neville Wright; the third, Justin Kripps, is an old hand going into his first Olympic Games). “I think Pierre’s probably alienated just enough people that Rush is able to build a team.”
But Brown puts it all down to one thing—chemistry: “The chemistry with Jesse and Lueders is pretty good, the chemistry with me and Lyndon Rush is really good,” he says before providing a little perspective. “We’re going into the Games and we’re going in to win medals. It doesn’t matter if Lueders wins a medal or Team Rush wins a medal. It’s a medal for Canada.”