Run off something like the ladies world speed skating championship for the first time and you draw the really big girls. The sight of them, those dedicated women from such icy places as The Netherlands and Russia, normally would be enough to scare an American teeny-bopper right out of her maxicoat. After all, the Russians and Dutch always win. So when they assembled in West Allis, Wis. last weekend to skate for some of the toughest medals in sport it was nice to have fearless Leah Poulos, 18, of Northbrook, Ill. on our side.
All week long Leah had been doing her own special kind of training. On Wednesday night, for instance, she and Ard Schenk, the handsome men's world champion from The Netherlands, climbed into her sister's bright yellow 1969 Sting Ray and took off for the Playboy Club lodge at Lake Geneva. Leah sipped a little of Ard's gin and 7-Up and tried to show him how to dance the Popcorn. Said Leah, tossing her long brown hair and blinking her big green pussycat eyes, "I just don't get that excited before a meet. Oh, sure, I'll start psyching up all right—at about 1 p.m. Saturday."
Like almost any other winter Saturday in Wisconsin, it came up gray with snow flurries and a steady, biting wind. Speed skating is run in pairs, and in the first group for the 500 meters, standing tall and confident, was Ludmila Titova of Russia, the European and Olympic champion. Ludmila is an aviation engineer, but her real profession is skating. At the Grenoble Olympics she was the only Russian speed skater to win a medal as the newly powerful Dutch excelled, and she was not about to lose her title in the U.S.A. Striding with precision, she whipped across the finish line in 45.38 seconds, not a world record (44.58) or an Olympic record (45.0) but fast enough. Now the rest of the world's best sprinters—Atje Keulen-Deelstra of The Netherlands, America's Dianne Holum, Sigrid Sundby of Norway and Tatiana Sidorova and Nina Statkevich of the U.S.S.R.—churned around the rink, but they could not beat Ludmila's time.
Then came Leah. She was paired with another of those quick Russians, Tatiana Averina, but Leah wasn't worried. Putting on her favorite blue-green cap and her red "fast gloves," Leah went out and skated the 500 in 45.73—her best time ever in her first world-championship race and good enough to win a silver medal for second place. Leah was sniffling a little as she caught her breath afterward. "Gosh," she said, "I didn't know I had gone that fast."
Leah's performance knocked Dianne Holum from third place to fourth, costing her a bronze medal, but Dianne came right back in Saturday's second event, the 1,500 meters, and set an American record with a clocking of 2:26.1. Then four flyers from The Netherlands—Ans Schut, Stien Kaiser, Rieneke Demming and Mrs. Keulen-Deelstra—pushed her back into fifth place. Dianne was undismayed, for she finished the day in fourth place in the overall point standings, and suddenly everyone was talking about these surprising Americans.
On Sunday the 1,000 meters ended in a tie between Ludmila and Sigrid for the gold medal. Possessing only one, the officials gave it to the Norwegian and told Mrs. Titova she would get hers in the mail. She was not happy about that, and sadder still a bit later when she slipped and skidded out of the running in the final event, the 3,000. Ultimately, the winner of that race was Ans Schut. The overall title went to Mrs. Keulen-Deelstra, who was fourth in the 3,000, while plucky Dianne Holum finished sixth, and fourth overall.
The American skaters' good showing more than made up for the assorted troubles of the previous week. Every day or so, it seemed, the visitors had a new complaint. The crowds were too small, there was too much wind blowing in off Lake Michigan, it was too cold, the rink was being polluted by smoke from nearby factories or exhaust fumes from an expressway.
Philip Krumm, president of the United States International Skating Association, had used all his powers of persuasion to get the meet in the first place. Krumm appealed to the International Skating Union's adventuresome spirit: Wouldn't a trip to the U.S. be fun for a change? Then its sympathies: the prestige of a world championship would encourage young skaters and give the U.S. program a boost. Finally, he mentioned dough. The U.S. would not only charter a jet to bring the skaters over, it would pay for hotel accommodations and give each skater $6 a day for meal money. Krumm also proposed a new series—the international sprint championships—which were held at West Allis the weekend before the women's worlds.
Actually, the American officials' only serious faux pas came on the first day of the sprints, when they nearly allowed the ice to melt. What happened, apparently, was that somebody had turned off the compressors that keep the rink frozen, and by the time they were restarted the sun had softened the ice. The sprints were postponed five hours.
As it happened, the Russians were quite happy about the delay. Had the competition started on time, Titova, Vera Krasnova and Sidorova would have missed it. They got stuck in an elevator at Milwaukee's Sheraton-Schroeder Hotel where the team was staying and were trapped for a while because they were unable to read the posted emergency directions.
This year's American alternates were Mary Saxton, 16, and Ann Henning, 14. Like Leah and Dianne they are from Northbrook, which is not a coincidence. Besides having its own ice rink, a summer bike-riding program for conditioning and one of America's few qualified coaches, Ed Rudolph, Northbrook is close enough to West Allis for the skaters to go there regularly for precious practice time on the only Olympic-sized artificial rink in this hemisphere.
"I've seen your girls," said one of the Dutch coaches, "and with training and coaching they will be among the fastest in the world. You have so many great little girls. Our girls that age are not nearly as good as Henning."
Of the Northbrook girls, Leah alone is not coached by Rudolph, but by her father, and this had led to touchy situations. "She should be training three times harder," Rudolph said, "but she is a very attractive girl and she loves boys."
Don't worry, Ed. As Mary Saxton says, "She's serious when she's on that line." And as for the fearsome opposition, Leah Poulos puts it this way: "All Russians look alike to me."