Three American beauty roses bloomed in the snowbanks of Hokkaido last week, some 11,000 miles from home. One was a ski racer from a farmhouse on the Winooski River in Vermont and two were speed skaters from the wealthy and now-renowned Chicago suburb of Northbrook. Altogether they won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze, and they made the final week of the XI Winter Olympiad a rare and unforgettable one for the United States. As usual, the Japanese had just the proper words to describe the girls: hakugin ni saita hana, which means "flower blossoms of the silvery snows," and subarashii, which means "beautiful and perfect."
Perhaps the most surprising blossom in the bouquet was Barbara Ann Cochran, 21, a gentle little blonde tiger, one of four children coached to world-class ski status by their exacting father, Gordon (Mickey) Cochran. Bursting out of a dense cloud bank that lay across the top of the course and running into a swirling snowstorm at the bottom, Barbara won the slalom on a steep and treacherous course at Mount Teine above the flats of Sapporo. And in beating the world she became the first American woman to win a skiing gold medal since Andrea Mead Lawrence won two of them 20 long years ago.
Though Barbara was considered a possible medalist, no one seriously thought her capable of stealing the gold from a strong field of French girls led by Mich√®le Jacot, Britt Lafforgue, Florence Steurer and newcomer Dani√®le Debernard. But after the first run Barbara was ahead of all the jeunes filles, although three of them were within a second of her lead time.
Then the weather thickened and Barbara slowly climbed the second course alone, intensely studying the snow at each gate. She was starting 15th this run, an important advantage because the piling new soft snow on the course would be packed by the time she pushed off. Shrouded in fog and snow at the top, she waited for her turn. "I tried not to think about my first run," she said, "but I didn't want to worry too much about the second. So I just decided that I would do my best, and even if I fell I would have that good first run to remember."
February 21, 1972
The weather was so soupy that Barbara could see only a few gates down-course when she launched into her start. Ahead of her, Debernard and Steurer had the best times. Lafforgue had fallen near the end of a powerful run that looked worthy of gold. Barbara slashed down the hill past hundreds of snow-covered Japanese clustered cheerfully along the sides. When she sped through the finish gate and her time flashed instantly on the electronic scoreboard the crowd gazed blankly at the numbers for a moment. Then there was a mighty bellow. A small band of U.S. women racers scampered over and engulfed Barbara in a damp embrace. Her brother, Bobby, and her boyfriend, slalomist Rick Chaffee, vaulted a fence and hoisted her to their shoulders. She had won, and she had won by the blink of an eye—by two-hundredths of a second.
When Barbara finally broke free from the swarm of fans to telephone her parents on the Winooski, it was two a.m. in Vermont. Barbara told her mother, "Hi. It's me. I didn't think you'd mind." Her mother and dad had watched her victory on live television, and when Mickey Cochran saw his daughter win a gold medal he had observed, "Well, it was almost perfect. But she did run it a little wide on the gates."
The skating victories of the ladies of Northbrook—the determined Dianne Holum, 20, and the lighthearted Annie Henning, 16—were more predictable but no less satisfying. Dianne's first race was at 1,500 meters, a most demanding event because European speed skaters, particularly the Dutch, practice it incessantly as preparation for all other distances. Dianne was paired with the Russian world champion, Nina Statkevich, who was considered her major rival. But there also were the Dutch to face—and there were rumors that the Russians had bred a new mystery skater who would sweep everybody off the ice.
At the start Dianne jumped away and was a full stride into the race before Statkevich got off the line. In the stands a raucous contingent of middle-aged Joe Colleges from Northbrook waved a large red banner and shouted, "Holum, Holum, rah, rah, rah." Dianne's father was desperately nervous and moved away from the Northbrook rooters to stand alone in an aisle. Each time his daughter skated past him below, he bellowed, "Come on, baby, come, baby." Dianne came on, with a strong and intelligent race, pacing herself perfectly against a bit of breeze, and her time was 2:20.85, a new Olympic record. But would it stand up?
Satisfied, Dianne skated around the inner oval after she finished, her hands clasped over her head, a radiant smile on her face. And though the wind dropped later, her time held good. The next three finishers were Dutch skaters, all of whom had to be a little chagrined since Dianne had done most of her training under a Dutch coach for the past two years. The Russian surprise entry proved to be nothing but a rumor and remained monumentally anonymous by finishing 14th.
Dianne's next event was the 1,000 meters, ordinarily her favorite, but by the time she skated the ice had turned to glue and she finished sixth—ahead of the Olympic mark but not good enough for a medal. Later she said, "I went into the race without any plan of how I would skate it." But when the 3,000-meter came up, she had a fine plan, indeed. She finished second, beaten only by the venerable Dutch housewife, Stien Baas-Kaiser, 34.
The achievements of Dianne Holum were exciting, even inspiring—and hers was the first gold medal ever won by an American woman in speed skating. Yet it was the sturdy blonde child-woman named Annie Henning who produced one of the remarkable athletic performances of the Games when she won her gold medal in the 500-meter sprint. Annie holds the world record in that event and she was the favorite to win, but she also was carrying a heavy load of pressure for a teen-ager. At dinner the night before the race she had been so nervous that she could hardly eat. She had spent the evening in her room at the Olympic Village, occasionally dipping into a jar of peanut butter on the coffee table, paging restlessly through all manner of reading matter ranging from U.S. Olympic Committee bulletins to a Korean picture book, then listening to music on tapes by the light of a single flickering candle. In the morning her mood had changed all over again. "I thought, 'Well, now it's all really starting,' and I didn't let myself think about anything except how I would skate the race."
Annie's coach, Ed Rudolph of North-brook, had spent the night tossing and worrying about the pair partner that Annie had drawn—a Canadian named Sylvia Burka, who is blind in one eye and must race with her head cocked to one side to watch against a collision during the crossover from one lane to another. "I knew that if Annie had the inner lane at the start there would be no trouble," said Rudolph. "But if she was in the outer lane she would be skating so much faster than Burka that they just might reach the crossover at the same time."
Annie got the outer lane. She leaped off to a quick start and swept smoothly around the first turn, displaying an awesome power in her strokes and clearly pulling out in front of Burka. Then the two skaters came to the crucial crossover point and the crowd gasped in alarm. Though Annie had the right-of-way, the Canadian girl did not yield, and Annie had to rise up out of her racing crouch and drag one skate to slow herself enough to avoid a crash. She coasted for perhaps 10 meters and lost a full second, Rudolph estimated later, an enormous amount of time in an all-out sprint like the 500. She had every reason to quit.
But instead of going limp and coasting the rest of the race, Annie immediately settled back down into her strong stride, rounded the last turn with ever-gaining power and flashed across the line in 43.73 seconds, a stunning time under the bizarre circumstances. "You know what?" said the delighted Annie. "I did just the right thing. This never happened to me before—ever. But in a split second I realized I could not get ahead of her. I knew I had to hold up and go behind her."
Later the judges ruled that Annie had been fouled and allowed her a second sprint, this time all alone after the others had finished. She shook her shoulders to loosen up, blasted away and beat her own winning time by four-tenths of a second. At the medal presentations after the race, Annie's mother burst into sobs as the abbreviated national anthem was played for her daughter, then said through her joyful tears, "Isn't she something? Two gold-medal times in one morning."
Annie also was favored to win the 1,000-meter race, but a 16-year-old girl should only be expected to do so much—and she scrambled her way into third for a bronze medal. She was elated—but exhausted—by her performances. In the stadium after the 1,000-meter race she sighed, then confided to a friend, "Oh, I've been so nervous. I'm just going home to Northbrook and go back to school. I'm not even going to enter the world championships. I might do a cruddy job and then everyone would say it was a fluke that I won an Olympic gold medal." She paused and added: "I just can't wait to be normal again. But, you know, I suppose people will never really let me be normal again, will they?"
All three of America's Olympic queens received wires from President Nixon. They were just a bit baffling. The cable addressed to Annie Henning said, "I wish you and Annie best of luck in the 500." And the one sent to Dianne congratulated her on winning the 500, a race she did not even enter.
Another bright spot for the U.S. emerged as the week ended when that callow gaggle of lads on the national hockey team came through with a silver-medal finish. Early in the Games the Americans had astonished Sapporo by walloping a very good team of Czechoslovakians 5-1. No one quite knew how this had come about, but everyone was impressed, particularly with U.S. Goalie Mike Curran of Green Bay, a peppery fighter who alternately cursed and coaxed his team into action—and who once broke his stick right across the back of an opponent. The afternoon after the Czech game the coach of the mighty Russian team spotted U.S. Coach Murray Williamson, ran over, threw himself on his knees in the snow and salaamed deeply. There was even talk that the United States might rise up later in the week and defeat the Soviets. But the night the two teams met proved to be the night that Peter played the Wolf. The Russians showed no mercy at all as they won 7-2 in their relentless march to the gold medal.
The last week of the Games was punctuated with highs and lows. Yukio Kasaya might well have repeated his 70-meter ski jump triumph on the 90-meter hill, which is his specialty. But he was buffeted by a gust of wind at the apex of his last leap, wobbled like a wounded duck and dropped down far short of the distance needed to defeat a Pole, Wojciech Fortuna. Out on the edge of town the tireless Russian woman cross-country racer Galina Kulakova won her third gold medal, as expected. The Russian figure skating pair, Irina Rodnina and Alexei Ulanov, was brilliant in predictable victory, as was the Czech, Ondrej Nepela, in the men's individual figure event. And the East Germans positively demolished the luge, winning eight of the nine medals.
In Alpine skiing, the XI Olympiad was a near total disaster for the once-magnificent French racing machine. Had it not been for Debernard's silver and Steurer's bronze, the French would have left Japan without a medal. They did not even place in the men's slalom, which was won by Francisco Fernandez Ochoa, a Spaniard, thus creating a new Olympic statistic in the surprise, surprise category. The Swiss performed with powerful consistency, winning six Alpine medals. They were led by the hearty Marie-Theres Nadig, who added the gold in the giant slalom to her earlier victory in the downhill. The Italian Gustav Th√∂ni won the men's giant slalom with a cool and skillful pair of runs and then took a silver in the slalom.
Doubt may cloud the future of the Winter Olympics, but the Japanese can only swell with pride over the marvels they achieved. The Games of Sapporo, 1972, were truly subarashii. Beautiful and perfect.