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Saturday, February 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brazilian bobsledding team's story much like Jamaicans

Seattle Times staff reporter

CESANA PARIOL, Italy — Way back in 1998, Ricardo Raschini went to college in Boston, delivered pizza for Bertucci's in nearby Cambridge, and knew nothing about bobsled.

His roommate went to interview Eric Maleson for a Brazilian newspaper. He went to talk to the pioneer, the visionary, the man who wanted to do something that still seems crazy — represent his country, a place devoid of ice, in bobsled, a sport that pretty much requires it.

Maleson lamented the difficulty in finding a countryman crazy enough to bobsled with him. The roommate happened to live with a Brazilian crazy enough to try.

And that's how Ricardo Raschini came to the Brazilian bobsled team.

"He introduced me to Eric," Raschini said on Friday night. "Since then, we are best friends, and we're doing this together."

A lot has changed since then. Maleson drove Brazil's four-man bobsled, nicknamed "The Frozen Banana," in Salt Lake City and then retired from competition. He now runs the Brazilian Ice Sports Federation, which evidently is not an oxymoron.

Raschini participated in luge in Salt Lake City, then took over as the driver for the Brazilian four-man bobsled, which stands 25th out of 26 sleds here after the first day of competition.

German bobsled king Andre Lange piloted the team that sits in first, and no Americans finished higher than sixth on a day as dreary for U.S. bobsledding as the snowstorm weather. Todd Hays, a silver medalist in Salt Lake City and seventh here, announced this would be his last Olympics afterward.

The Brazilians crashed on curve 14 during their first run, flipping upside down so their heads were pressed against the ice, yet still sliding to the finish line while a venue held its collective breath. This wasn't as bad as their crash during training four days earlier. That crash left Raschini with ice burns all over his body. This one just promised a sore neck today.

"We finished the first run, but not the way we wanted to," he quipped. "When I screamed to the crew to brake the sled [after the second run], that was an awesome feeling."

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More evidence that the Brazilian bobsled team still has a way to go, that despite a similar training climate and a movie in the works, these guys are not the Jamaican bobsled team. Not yet, anyway.

Although they struggle with similarly humble and tropical beginnings.

The Brazilian bobsled team does not train in Brazil. There is no bobsled facility, no bobsled track and no snow. Raschini and Maleson want to build a push-start track, for sleds with wheels. That's because the start is the most important part of a bobsled race — races can be lost later on the course, but they cannot be won without the start, where differences are magnified three times over the whole course.

The Brazilian bobsled team struggles with finances — Raschini estimates the team raised $300,000 in the last four years, compared to millions pumped into U.S. bobsled. He talks about coming to this track for a competition in December. Only Brazil did not compete. Instead, its sled was stuck in Canada, somewhere in customs, Raschini said, waving his hand, shaking his head.

The Brazilian bobsled team is not well known in Brazil or, really, known at all. "I try to explain," Raschini said. "I tell them about ice. I tell them about the sled. Nothing. Then I tell them about the Jamaica movie, and they're like 'Oh, OK,' like all excited. Now that we're here, they're showing the movie all the time over there."

Pretty soon, the Brazilian bobsled team will have a movie of its own. Already backed by a production company and slated for release before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the movie will be mainly about Maleson, who had never seen snow, and moved to Boston in 1995 after watching "Cool Runnings."

He built the team with the help of longtime girlfriend and current public-relations manager, Lisa Papandrea, and they were married in the Olympic village, in front of Raschini, in Salt Lake City.

"This will be more of a love story," Raschini promises.

Whether the Brazilian bobsled team reaches the level of success Jamaica did remains to be seen. And it rests largely on the shoulders of a former pizza delivery man turned accidental bobsled pilot.

"One day maybe I'm going to be a coach," he said. "And if we have money, enough, we will be able to put a good team together. With a good coach, you can go places. Maybe one day get an Olympic medal. We want the first one [for] Latin America, South America."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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