A lot of it is in the strategy, and 16-year-old Jacques Thibault of Quebec City, Canada knew just what it takes to win at speed skating, pack style. Part of the secret is in the left hand, in the way one leans hard into the turns and trails one's fingertips on the watery ice. As Thibault swung into the lead his fingers kicked up a rooster-tail of water, and New York's John Lovell, pounding along behind, was catching it in the face. Lovell made a desperate attempt to pass, and down he went, sloshing into the boards. The pack quickly left him behind, and Thibault went on to win his 800-meter heat. Dunkings are all part of the game.
Among the 274 skaters assembled at Lake Placid for last week's North American Indoor championships, the feeling was that this is how the sport should be run: not the cold, impersonal verdict of a stopwatch; not speed skating Olympic style. Their goal is to convince the rest of the world, or reconvince it after 43 years, that theirs is the true way.
After the U.S. had sold Lake Placid as the site for the 1932 Winter Games, it also sold the concept of pack skating. But it turned out that the Europeans did not know how to skate in packs, and two New York lads, Jack Shea and Irving Jaffee, won all four men's gold medals. Naturally, that was the end of pack skating in the Olympics.
In 1980 the Games will return to Lake Placid, but pack skating still will be out in the cold. However, as Medalist Jack Shea, now 65, noted last week, "Pack skating is more fun. It's a matching of wits not speed." Olympic skating is a four-lap-to-a-mile proposition pitting two skaters against each other. There is no jockeying for position, there are few falls—and no unexpected soakings.
The Lake Placid rink is 16 laps to the mile, typical for indoor racing and the source of much of its style and madness. The rhomboidal-shaped course offers tight turns, and getting around them takes a lot of fancy footwork: the dragging of toes, considerable digging in and pivoting. This tends to hack up the ice. Then, just as the surface gets too bad, out comes a bucket brigade; water on the ice supposedly lessens the friction. But the ruts grew deeper last week, the buckets kept emptying and the skaters kept flying into the soup.
Still, there were more laughs than tears. Nothing could completely detract from the presence of the Continent's best indoor racers, and their sport stirs ample excitement. All the skaters charged hard, tilted like bicycle racers, bodies low, waiting to make their moves. On the first night of competition, after a day of ravaging the ice, 34 skaters went down in 20 finals, and these were the best of the lot, survivors of a whole day of heats and semifinals.
The favorites kept getting knocked off, partly because of the ice, but partly because that's the way things are in pack racing, as they are in demolition derbies. Richie Wurster of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., national champion in the outdoor division—the four-lap, less hectic cousin to indoor racing—fell in a 3,000-meter heat. He had not fallen in more than 300 previous races. Another whiz, Jim Lynch of Sydney, Australia, was considered a man to beat, but in his 800-meter heat he tripped over a bootlace and splashed out of the event. "That never happens," he grumbled. As a U.S. visitor and unofficial entrant, Lynch almost had won the title last year. This time he had full sanction. A spill also wiped out Alec Karros, a 20-year-old threat from the University of Missouri, and in the 800 meters Wurster tumbled again.
In the 800-meter women's finals, the two favorites, current national and defending North American champ Michelle Conroy of St. Paul, Minn. and Peggy Hartrich, former national champion, from St. Louis, Mo., were both disqualified—Conroy for charging, Hartrich for pushing. They seemed bewildered, but that's the sort of week it was. "All the officials are volunteers," said Karros,' "so one week you can get by with a flying tackle and the next week you're out if you touch someone's arm."
Between races, while the skaters considered the possible disasters awaiting them, they promoted their game. One racer cited the Guinness Book of World Records to prove how great the sport was and, by association, himself. "The fastest hockey skater is Bobby Hull," he said. "He has been clocked at 29.7 mph for a short burst. But pack-style speed skaters can average 29.43 mph throughout a 500-meter race." The way they treat their skates might be a factor. Most hockey blades are ground to form a concave hollow, the speedsters said, while their blades are filed with a flat area in the middle—plus slightly turned-up areas at front and back for easier pivoting in the turns. As an added touch, the blades are mounted left-of-center on the foot to help in cornering.
The last hours of the meet were as wild as anything that had gone before, and the pattern didn't change. Based on point totals, Ron Scholefield of Brookfield, Ill. was tied for the lead with Lynch among senior men. Scholefield burst home first in the 1,500-meter semifinal but was disqualified for cutting inside one of the boundary markers (they were toilet-bowl plungers, minus handles, stuck on the ice). That left him with one more chance, the 1,000-meter final, but at the tight first turn Scholefield went down—and out. Lynch won the division, this time officially, bouncing around the rink like a kangaroo and prompting one competitor to call him "our most charismatic champion."
When the women's points were totaled, Hartrich had beat out Conroy for the senior crown and that evened them up: a national and a North American title apiece. Conroy, who has retired after each of the past two skating seasons, was asked if this was it again. "Absolutely. I'm retired," she said.
Still, one could not help but notice that Conroy was sharpening her skates when she said it. Pack-style skaters never retire, really. What if someone asked them if they'd like to compete in the Olympics like those other skaters—you know, the ones who never experience the thrill of body contact?