By John Crumpacker - Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/02/19/SPGSNBE3UC1.DTL&ao=all
Jamaica had its "Cool Runnings,'' the film about a group of athletes from that Caribbean country making an unlikely foray into bobsled racing.
Israel may soon have its "Frozen Chosen,'' as a disparate group of Jewish men embrace the same improbable dream.
"We got a lot of mileage out of that'' moniker, said John Frank, the former 49ers tight end who is spearheading Israel's bobsled effort.
The group includes the 42-year-old Frank, a 49er-turned plastic surgeon; an ex-U.S. fighter pilot; a former Canadian sprinter; and a young Israeli from Jerusalem who represents the country's future in the sport.
"I had to get that movie by John Candy to make sure it was all right,'' said Frank's mother, Barbara Frank, of Pittsburgh, Pa. "I said 'Just close your eyes.' I think he was always like that as a kid, going to the unknown. Nothing surprises me.''
The idea came in a flash of inspiration. One thing about epiphanies, the lightbulb can click on just about anywhere.
For Frank, it was on a chair lift in the Sierra.
"The genesis of bobsled is the genesis of where most ideas come from -- the chair lift, golf course or fly fishing -- and in this case it was a chair lift,'' Frank said. "I was skiing in the Sierra a couple years ago. When you're in the mountains, 8,000 feet, it's sunny and crisp, you're riding the chair lift, that's when I've been the most creative in my life.''
Frank, who won two Super Bowl rings in his five years with the 49ers, is now a plastic surgeon with a Manhattan practice. Despite being 15 years retired from pro football and leading a comfortable lifestyle, he decided to humble himself and try something new.
If guys from a tropical island could do it, so could some committed chaps representing a country where at least it snows a little bit, Frank reasoned.
Under the Eagle's Nest
"I was with some friends. We were doing backcountry skiing, some aerials, but nothing like the X Games,'' Frank said. "We were having a hoot. After you go into the backcountry and do some aerials, you want more and more. Bobsled was the next challenge.''
In short order, Frank recruited three younger men willing to give a nod to the bob, took a flight to Israel to gain citizenship, wriggled into a racing suit complete with Kevlar vest, and finished a run in the historically poignant Bavarian town of Konigssee, Germany -- to the applause of elderly Germans who appreciated the bittersweet significance of seeing an Israeli bobsled team competing at that location.
Sixty years ago, Adolf Hitler would have looked down upon the future bobsled track from the "Eagle's Nest,'' his stronghold in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden. Hitler's aerie, built in 1935 when he thought the Nazi empire would last 1,000 years, was blown up in 1952.
"I'm sure there are a lot of Holocaust survivors who liked to see an Israeli going down the track,'' Frank said. "There were a lot of 60-, 70-year- old Germans in the stands clapping when we came across the finish line. That was breathtaking. If I never raced again, it would be satisfying. They understood the gravity of having an Israeli team competing there.''
Said Frank's bobsled coach, New Zealander Ross Dominikovich, "It almost made me choke up. It's incredibly emotional for a non-Jewish person. I can't imagine what it's like for a Jewish person. Hitler had his 'Eagle's Nest' there. It looks over the track. It made me proud to see these guys do it. It's fabulous. It's more than a sport.''
Jet pilot also Chosen
Frank's fellow "Frozen Chosen'' are Aaron Zeff, 34, of San Francisco, formerly a pilot of a craft designed to go a little faster than a bobsled -- a U.S. Air Force Phantom Jet; David Greaves, 37, a former track athlete from Winnipeg, Canada; Moshe Horowitz, 24, of Jerusalem; and Dominikovich, a former Olympic bobsledder for New Zealand living in Calgary.
With a little luck and a lot of skill (or a little skill and a lot of luck), Frank's group could earn a qualifying spot in next year's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The field will include the top 28 sleds as determined in World Cup competition in Europe and North America.
Dominikovich said the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Canada and the Czech Republic are all but guaranteed to qualify two sleds each. That's 12 sleds right there. Ten more spots will go to the next highest finishers in World Cup competition. A series of race-offs determines the final six.
Israel figures to be in the last group with such non-bobsled powers as Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Britain and France.
"They definitely have a chance to compete,'' Dominikovich said. "It will be tough to make it, but they have as a good a chance as anyone to be the best of the rest of the nontraditional bobsled countries. It'll be very difficult but it's not to say you can't do it.''
That's Frank in a nutshell.
"Somebody had to do it and leave it to him, he'll do it,'' Barbara Frank said of her son.
Doctor's hands took beating
Frank came out of Ohio State in 1984 as an undersized tight end and went to the 49ers on the second round of the draft in a sublime example of right place, right time. By the time his abbreviated five-year career was over, he had won two Super Bowl rings from those championship teams in 1984 and '88.
In the process, Frank caught 65 passes for 662 yards and 10 touchdowns, but was better known for his feisty disposition and his notable encounters blocking Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants.
Frank caught two passes from Joe Montana for 15 yards in the final game of his career, Super Bowl XXIII. He retired after the game to finish his medical studies. With a goal of becoming a surgeon, Frank couldn't afford to have his hands mangled playing any more football.
"John knew what his calling was and what he wanted to do,'' Montana said last year in a 49ers' game program. "I think it's great when people have that kind of foresight.''
Frank and friends are scheduled to compete in bobsled's World Championships this weekend in Calgary in their continuing quest to improve the country's standing in the sport. Except for the sport of ice skating, Israel has never had any other representatives in the Winter Olympics.
"It seemed as if we were doing it for Israel it would be a worthy cause while being apolitical,'' Frank said. "When you hear about the strife in the Middle East, you feel removed, isolated. I felt the same way about Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a nice way to be connected to my roots. Growing up in a Jewish family in Pennsylvania, that's my roots and heritage. That's one way to remain connected.''
Sounds like car accident
Bobsled is a sport with a simple premise but a difficult execution. In two-man bob, there's a brakeman whose only responsibilities are to give the sled a hellacious push at the top of the course and to apply the brakes upon crossing the finish line.
The masterful work is done by the pilot as he guides the sled down an icy chute of turns and descents at speeds reaching 70 miles per hour.
Most American athletes who give bobsled a try come from backgrounds in football and track and field, because the sport requires power and explosive quickness. Track athlete Vonetta Flowers tried out for bobsled in 2000 and ended up winning a gold medal (with Jill Bakken) at Salt Lake City in 2002 as part of the first group of women to compete in the sport in the Olympics.
In Zeff, the "Frozen Chosen'' have a literal pilot from the U.S. Air Force guiding their blue-and-white craft. Frank is happy doing the heavy lifting, but not for long. At 42, he wants to give way to the 24-year-old Horowitz sooner rather than later.
"He's a terrific athlete,'' Frank said. "We had tryouts last spring in Tel Aviv and he was the standout. Hopefully, he'll move to pilot and we'll have more Israelis. We're just getting oriented in the sport.
"If we don't make the grade for Torino, we'll shoot for Vancouver (in 2010). This is like the Jamaicans; 1988 was their first Olympics and now they're respectable. This is a long-term commitment.''
Frank and Zeff represented Israel in World Cup competition last year and finished in the low 30s at the World Championships. "It took me four, five months to where I felt I could compete internationally,'' Frank said. "It was pretty remarkable to be competing with world-class athletes.''
Frank described riding in a bobsled the first time, 2 1/2 years ago in Calgary, as "thrilling but also overwhelming.''
"Riding in the back, it's real gritty,'' he said. "You get knocked around a lot. It's so noisy. It sounds like you're in a car accident. You're really banged around and you can't see anything when you're upside down. Even the best pilots turn the sled upside down.''
Frank hopes to remain right-side up long enough to see Israel become respectable in a sport in which it has no past and an uncertain future. Still, that's a cool prospect for the "Frozen Chosen.''