RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When should an aging athlete give up an Olympic dream? For Patrick Quinn, who is 39, not yet. Quinn is a successful businessman from the Chicago area. He's married, has a young daughter. But he's also got a thing about the Olympics. Twice he tried to qualify for the Winter Games and failed both times. Now he's trying again in a different sport. And, finally, with the Winter Olympics in Italy less than three months away, Patrick Quinn is close. NPR's Tom Goldman has this story.
TOM GOLDMAN reporting:
There's a bit of irony in Patrick Quinn's latest Olympic quest. He's always lived by the motto `failure is not falling down, it's staying down.' But now if he finally succeeds, and makes the US Olympic team, he'll do it flat on his back.
(Soundbite of luge)
GOLDMAN: Quinn rockets down an icy luge track on a mountain outside of Lake Placid, New York. Already a blur at 80 miles per hour, he's practically invisible lying underneath his teammate. Patrick Quinn has reinvented himself in the sport of doubles luge, a twisty, curvy event that mirrors the twists and turns of his 25-year Olympic dream. It began, more irony here, in this very town.
(Soundbite of Olympics)
Unidentified Man #1: ...now. Morrow, up to Slope(ph). Five seconds left in the game.
Unidentified Man #2: Score!
Unidentified Man #1: Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Unbelievable!
GOLDMAN: Patrick Quinn was a hockey-obsessed teen-ager in 1980 when he watched the miracle on ice, the US hockey victory over the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Olympics. It helped crystalize his goal of going to the Games as a hockey player. He played in college at Holy Cross, but after graduation he got a high-paying sales and marketing job in New York City. Hockey faded. He got into inline skating, which ultimately crossed over to speed skating. Quinn did well enough in that sport to train and compete on a national level in the long distance events.
Mr. PATRICK QUINN: I had more willingness to suffer than I had innate ability or natural ability. So I was willing to punish myself through the training that was required.
GOLDMAN: That trade also meant he didn't stop after failing to qualify in speed skating for the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. But after the 2002 failure, there were new challenges. The opportunity in luge suddenly opened up. At the same time, his wife got pregnant and his dad, with whom Quinn had never really connected on sports, got very sick.
Mr. QUINN: I knew he wasn't going to last long. And he, at one point, said to me, `Just because you're gonna have a baby doesn't mean you have to quit. Finish this so your daughter will see you finish what you started.'
GOLDMAN: Two weeks later, his dad died and his daughter, Alaina, was born. So, too, was the new dream, making the Olympics in the doubles luge.
Unidentified Woman: Track is clear to start three for Christian Nickem and Pat Quinn. And we'll go to start one.
GOLDMAN: Of all the people Patrick Quinn thanks for making his Olympic odyssey possible, Christian Nickem is right up there at the top. On top, in fact. As Quinn's racing teammate, the 6'2", 200-pound Nickem lies face up on Quinn, who lies face up on the sled, bearing not only Nickem's weight, but the G-forces during a race that make Nickem seem even heavier, and, yes, it's as uncomfortable as it sounds as I discover when they let me get on the sled with Nickem.
OK. (Laughs) Oh, my God!
Mr. QUINN: OK, now I'm gonna jump up and down on his chest for the next 45 seconds. And you get to hold your head up.
GOLDMAN: And so we're going 80 miles an hour like this?
Mr. QUINN: Pick your head up to come right up behind Christian's because you don't want any wind going in between so you got to hold your head in that position.
GOLDMAN: My chin in his...
Mr. QUINN: Right up against his helmet. Yeah.
GOLDMAN: Like that?
Uncomfortable, yes, but you'll never hear Quinn complain. After his first luge partner retired, it was Nickem, a four-time world junior champion who took a chance by agreeing to ride with Quinn, a doubles luge rookie in his late 30s.
Mr. CHRISTIAN NICKEM: He only has one year in the sport. I'm, like, `Oh, what am I doing?' somewhat, but I talked to him. One thing Patrick is is basically fit as any 21-year-old.
GOLDMAN: And more committed than most, which the 27-year-old Nickem says drew him to Quinn. The partnership was measured in crashes and bruises early on but then came success. Last year, their first racing season together, Nickem-Quinn finished as high as eighth place in three World Cup events. Currently, they're the number two team in the US. Luge is a sport of slight body movements. A hand squeeze or a head turn make a speeding sled move to the right spot at the right time. Ideally, in doubles luge, the top person transmits those movements to the sled through the bottom person. Nickem likens it to dancing. He says Quinn quickly has learned how to follow his lead.
Mr. NICKEM: I have the 10 years of experience in the sport. I know what I want to do on the sled. I know what needs to be done to win. It's just a matter of teaching Patrick the skills what he needs to do and he's excellent worker, excellent listener. He can work for me any day.
GOLDMAN: Off the sled, at least, Nickem will have to get in line.
Mr. QUINN: Hey, Jen, it's Pat calling. I spoke to Market America today and they are going to do the signature brand of vitamins of you.
GOLDMAN: Patrick Quinn works as a sports agent for a number of winner athletes, including Olympic medal-winning speed skater Jennifer Rodriquez. After mornings on the luge track, and in the weight room, Quinn starts work with Q Sports International, his 12-year-old company. He'll be in this small room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid until 9 or 10 at night, calling companies like Nike and McDonald's, using his sales skills to earn his athletes money. If he does a deal, he takes a cut. Otherwise, nothing, since Quinn doesn't make his clients sign a contract.
Mr. QUINN: I know the struggles. I know it's hard to find money to pay the bills. I know the sacrifices. For most of the athletes that I work with, that has been a bonding point.
GOLDMAN: And soon Quinn and some of his clients may be Olympic teammates. From now until the middle of next month, Quinn and Nickem will compete with another American luge pair. The team that does better in five World Cup races qualifies for the Winter Games. If it's Quinn and Nickem, Quinn predicts it'll take him a moment before he celebrates.
Mr. QUINN: I have a feeling I'm gonna be very apprehensive about saying, `Is it true? Is it real? Are you sure?' You know? `Who's here official to tell me for sure you're definitely on the Olympic team?' I think I'm gonna need that before I can have that feeling of `did it.'
GOLDMAN: Last week, training for the second of the five World Cup races, Quinn and Nickem crashed, hard. Nickem was knocked unconscious and suffered a serious concussion. They haven't raced since then. Nickem's feeling better but they can't get back on the sled until a doctor gives the OK. In an e-mail to friends, Quinn wrote that he and Nickem most definitely are not giving up.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can get a look at Patrick Quinn on his luge track at npr.org.
This is NPR News.