SALT LAKE CITY _ Steve Mesler dreamed of being an Olympian. A Summer Olympian. Maybe the next Bruce Jenner or Dan O'Brien.
An alternate on the U.S.'s top four-man bobsled team?
Four months ago, he hadn't even ridden in a bobsled.
Six years ago, as he left his hometown of Buffalo and headed to the University of Florida, he hadn't even thought about riding in one.
He was a top high school pentathlete, good enough to go to Florida on a track scholarship. And before heading to Gainesville, he spent a few weeks in Atlanta, enjoying his graduation present _ tickets to the 1996 Summer Games.
"That might have been the only vacation we've been able to take together," said his father, Ben. "I think we saw 11 of the 13 days of track. It was great."
Then came the injuries. An ankle one year. A hamstring another. Finally, an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery.
"Every year," Steve Mesler said, "there was something."
His college track career was done. But Mesler wasn't ready to give up on athletics. So he went on the Internet and found something that caught his eye: bobsled.
The site spelled out standards for getting into the U.S. bobsledding program. Running. Weightlifting. Consecutive hops. In a way, the standards were like the decathlon. A series of tests. He liked the idea of the new challenge. And he loved the thought of being an Olympian.
When he graduated from UF in December 2000 with a degree in Exercise and Sports Science, he returned home for Christmas and told his parents, both special education teachers in Buffalo, about his plan to try bobsledding.
"My mom said, 'Get a job,'" he recalled with a laugh. "She said, 'You've been running track for 4 1-2 years. You've graduated college and you're trying to do what? Get a job.' Now they absolutely thrilled for me."
He would eventually get a job. But first he tried to make the Olympic team. He met the standards, then spent a couple months in Lake Placid training. Finally, just last October, he made his first ride in a bobsled.
"It was unbelievable," he said, grinning at the mere memory of it.
He had tried sky diving before, but this _ zipping down an icy track at speeds approaching 90 mph _topped even that. He ended up being asked by driver Mike Dionne to compete in the Olympic Trials. They finished third. And he thought that was it, at least for now.
He got a job.
That's where he would have been today, coaching kids at Oak Hill High School near Gainesville, if it weren't for a controversial last-minute pre-Games twist.
Pavle Jovanovic, of Tom Rivers, N.J., was expected to be in the four-men sled driven by Todd Hays. But on Dec. 29 at the Olympic Trials, Jovanovic underwent a doping test. Analysis of the samples, done at an IOC-accredited lab in Los Angeles, revealed the presence of nandrolone metabolites, presumably from supplements, above the cut-off level. He was banned. He appealed. The Court of Arbitration for Sport issued its ruling the day before the Olympics opened in Salt Lake City _ the ban would stand.
Mesler had received a call, telling him to come to Salt Lake City. Just in case. He was in his hotel when the word came. He was on the team, an alternate for the four-man sled driven by Hays.
Even two days later, when he was one of 10 U.S. men to sit at a table for a press conference _ one that Hays used to rip Olympic officials of the ban of Jovanovic _ Mesler wasn't sure how to feel.
"I still feel bad for Pavle," he said. "He's a friend of mine. It's ridiculous. It could have been any of us. And I know that. What Todd was saying is true. So it's taken me a few days to feel better about myself and get over feeling bad about Pavle."
Still, it's clear that by the end of the Games _ the four-man competition is Friday and Saturday _ Mesler will be thrilled to be here, living a dream he never quite imagined as a kid growing up in Buffalo.
"I watched (the Winter Olympics) just like anybody else," he said. "It was on. I thought it was neat. I thought, 'That would be great to do one time.'"
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