Sledding Bells

updated 05/29/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1995 01:00AM

IN FEBRUARY 1994, SUE OSTERBERG was sitting in her Washington apartment watching the stirring opening ceremonies of the Lillehammer, Norway, Olympics. For a moment the cameras settled on four Bosnian bobsledders—two Muslims, a Serb and a Croat—who had defied not only the hatred consuming their country but also the Serbian militia that had sealed the perimeter of Sarajevo. After the Games, said the commentator, the sledders, unable to return home, would likely go to European refugee camps. "I remember thinking, 'These Bosnians risked their lives to be there, and they're going to end up in a refugee camp?' " says Sue. "I decided to see what I could do."

Fifteen months later, Sue, 31, smiles as she thinks back to the night that changed her life. Seated beside her in the living room of a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., is Igor Boras—the former Bosnian Croat bobsledder who is now her husband. Their 6-week-old son Anton sleeps contentedly in his father's lap. "I think this was God's plan," says Igor, 27.

Back in October 1992, Igor, whose engineering studies at the University of Sarajevo had been interrupted by the outbreak of civil war that April, met Zdravko Stojnic, former coach of the Yugoslavian bobsled team. Despite the war, Stojnic wanted to assemble a team to represent the newly formed country of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the '94 Olympics. Igor, a 6'3" former track athlete, persuaded Stojnic to take him on.

After Igor and Stojnic qualified for the Olympics at the world championships in Innsbruck, Austria, in February 1993—they snuck out of Serbian-surrounded Sarajevo and then back in—Igor trained indoors for 11 months, lifting weights and running wind sprints in the hallways of buildings away from the shelling and sniper fire. During that year he was joined by teammates Nizar Zaciragic, Zoran So-kolovic, Alan Durmic and Izet Haracic. Igor finally left for Lillehammer by finagling his way onto a U.N. flight with a phony press card. His mother, Helena, 52, an English teacher and translator who still lives in Sarajevo, recalls their farewell. "Usually, mothers cry when they see their children off," she says. "But in Sarajevo every mother is glad when her children leave. We have a saying, 'It is better to have them alive and far away than here in a grave.' "

Reunited in Lillehammer, the Bosnians competed in a borrowed Dutch sled and finished 29th out of 30 teams—beating only a U.S. team that had been disqualified. But there was a consolation prize. One night a journalist passed on to the team a message he had received from Sue, saying she had heard about the group's impending refugee status and wanted to help. Igor, the team's unofficial spokesman, telephoned her in the States. "Her voice was healing, like a cure," he remembers. "She said, 'How can I help? Would you like to come here?' She called every night. I found myself waiting to hear her voice."

Sue had once been the recipient of a helping hand herself. At 15, estranged from her divorced parents, she had been taken in by an aunt and uncle who lived in Paxton, Mass., and remained with them until she graduated from nearby Anna Maria College in 1986. "I couldn't pay my aunt and uncle back directly for their kindness," she says, "but I decided I could help people in my own life."

Now, galvanized by the Bosnians' plight, Sue, a regional manager with a telecommunications company, helped persuade American University in Washington to give the team its annual Keeper of the Flame award celebrating ethnic diversity. Igor, arriving with Zaciragic on a temporary visa three weeks after the completion of the Games, was surprised by her youth—he'd been too shy to ask her age. Sue, in turn, thought Boras needed a good meal. "He looked like a tall, skinny waif," she says. "I decided I'd have to take care of him."

Over the following weeks, Sue and Igor began taking long drives, talking about their backgrounds, about the war, about shared interests in classical music and history. "Igor was different from American men, more open and tolerant," says Sue. Igor confirms their mutual attraction. "We found each other very fast," he says. The two had already begun talking about marriage when Sue discovered she was pregnant in July 1994. "We were committed to the relationship," she says. "It sped us up," adds Igor.

Married last September, Sue and Igor admit they've had a challenging' first year. Igor was granted political asylum last November and in the fall began classes at Catholic University to complete his degree. (His four teammates have found jobs, two as cable installers, one as a law firm clerk and one as a groundskeeper.) Sue says that trivial tasks sometimes proved frustrating. "I'd ask him to go to the store and get Cheetos, and he'd come back empty-handed because he was too proud to ask the store clerk what they are." But Anton's birth in April has put things in perspective. "I can't wait for his first smile, his first teeth," says Igor. "We're looking forward to him growing up to love others."

Sue sees a lesson in Igor's remarkable odyssey. "So many people have said to me, 'I saw the Bosnians at the Olympics and felt bad for them, but I didn't know what to do.' People should never assume they can't do anything. Besides," she adds, "you can never tell what will unfold."

SUSAN REED
ALICIA BROOKS in Alexandria

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