Now that it's all over, now that the battle has been fought and history has been carved in ice, now it can be told. The 19-year-old woman staying at Lake Placid's Hilton Inn under the name of Miss L. Danolfo was actually Linda Fratianne, the U.S. and world women's figure skating champion and the mystery lady of the Winter Games. And while most everybody in town wondered where in the Adirondacks Linda had disappeared to, for almost two weeks she lived in Room 726 of the Inn's Lakeshore Building, subsisting on yogurt and wedges of cheesecake smuggled in under her coat lest her coach find out.
For a few hours last Saturday, while she was still in pseudonymous seclusion, Fratianne represented the last chance for a U.S. woman to win a gold medal at Lake Placid. The Games were winding down all too fast: the women's slalom had ended at about noon—another zip for the U.S.—and the only other events left were the hockey and four-man bobsled finals. The finals in women's figure skating were set for 7:30 p.m., and this event, it seemed likely, would produce a golden moment for America.
Fratianne was ready for it. As the shadowy Miss L. Danolfo, she had escaped the bass-drum pressures exerted on many of the competitors in a small town where everybody seemed to be living in everybody else's back pocket, and on the day of the competition she was relaxed and unharried. Despite the cheesecake, her weight was down four pounds to about 95—"not a bad fighting weight for me," she allowed—and she was ready to roll. She was also down in the standings, in second place, but the freestyle finals count for 50% of a skater's total score and Fratianne's traditional strong finish could wipe out that deficit.
As everyone knows by now, the real Fratianne came out of hiding to take part in one of the toughest showdowns in Olympic skating history. She performed marvelously and won a standing, whooping ovation and armloads of flowers from the crowd in the Olympic Field House. The judges' scoreboards lit up with 5.8s and 5.9s—6.0 is as good as it gets—and that seemed to take care of that. When it was all over, Linda had apparently wiped out all her opponents. But, it turned out, one had not been erased.
Check this score: the gold medal, 189.00 points to 188.30, went to East Germany's Anett P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch (pronounced perch), 19, who had built a solid lead in the compulsories and was flat not going to surrender it in the finals, no matter how much the partisan crowd hollered. And though there was controversy about the scoring of the compulsories, such talk couldn't diminish the final spectacle. It was an absolute go-for-it doozy in shades of brilliant red, Fratianne, and pale pink, P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch. As they swirled through their four-minute programs, Fratianne pulled off stunning loops and jumps; so did P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch. Fratianne floated through a balletic sequence that was explosively poetic; so did P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch. "This was my biggest success ever," said P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch, the 1978 world champion and current European champion.
"I'm disappointed," said Fratianne, weary but gracious, "but this isn't the end of the world." Indeed, it is not: like the defending world championship pair of Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia, forced out of the Olympics when Gardner was injured, Fratianne must now decide whether or not to defend her world title next month in West Germany. As of last Sunday night, it seemed that it could go either way. Fratianne's mother had been fuming ever since the school figures on Wednesday over what she termed sinister political influences that had held Linda back, had kept her from entering the finals in a more advantageous position. She would sue somebody if necessary, Virginia said, or pull her daughter out of the world meet if that's what it would take to remedy the situation. It is accepted tradition that passions run hot over skating's scoring system—but, in this case, they were at a full boil.
It is a measure of U.S. preoccupation with gold medals that there is a tendency in some quarters to regard Fratianne's silver medal as a failure. Don't listen to such nonsense; this was the best of battles and a joy to behold. The kids slugged it out toe to toe.
Almost forgotten in this sizzling wind-up was the fact that the bronze medal went to Dagmar Lurz of West Germany, who also had led Fratianne in the school figures but whose freestyle skating seemed limp compared to that of the top two. P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch and Fratianne were also more dazzling than the top guns in the men's competition. As expected, Robin Cousins of Great Britain lutzed off with the gold, leaving East Germany's Jan Hoffmann and Charlie Tickner of the U.S. in the two-three spots. The competition had been fine, all right, but through the week the buildup for the women had been more intense.
Lord knows it ain't easy being the most sought-after woman in a manic little town full of celebrity-hungry reporters and fans. It was this siegelike atmosphere that had driven the Fratiannes into hiding. The mystery name of Danolfo had come easily enough. It was Virginia's maiden name. Even Linda's coach, Frank Carroll, was forced to stash himself away at the Lakeshore Building, Room 725, under the name Ron Ferris—Ron Ferris?—a nom de skate known to only a few folks in Lake Placid.
Just as golden boy Eric Heiden was constantly besieged, Fratianne couldn't make a move without setting off a wild pursuit punctuated by bleating cries of "It's Linda, you guys!" Jostling crowds of reporters would beg for interviews, any tiny scrap of information that could be flashed to the home news desk. "What did you have for breakfast, Linda?" And "Where have you been? What you been doing with your time, Linda?"
Well, this is what Fratianne had for breakfast: a lot of Dannon yogurt, the official yogurt—yecch!—of the Games. This is where she was: in the Lakeshore Building or at the Potluck Deli on Main Street, her head ducked down and her coat collar turned up, buying that sensational cheesecake at 75¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a wedge.
"Frank Carroll would have a fit if he knew," Linda said. "Boy, he watches my diet like crazy; I'm supposed to eat all the good-for-you stuff. But Mom and I smuggle the cheesecake home and sit up in bed at night and scarf it like crazy."
"I've gained two; Linda's down four," Virginia said. "We sound like the daily Dow-Jones report."
"Listen," said Linda, "when we go to national or world competitions, it's always the same thing: we secretly order food from the hotel room service late at night, and then we put the empty trays in the hallway outside somebody else's door so that Frank will never know."
But Frank Carroll knew all, of course—he even occasionally scarfed up some cheesecake himself—but he is understanding enough to know when to turn down the pressure.
On the morning before the finals, not knowing that she would end up as her country's last hope for a women's gold medal, Fratianne stood in Room 726 with a sad look on her face and said, "Look at this." There were four bouquets of flowers that had been presented to her after the women's short program. They came in all kinds and colors, in bursts of bright reds and yellows. The night before, she had put them outside on the balcony to keep them fresh, but they had frozen solid overnight and now each petal was encased in clear ice.
Fratianne shrugged and turned away. "I think that tells us something about life in figure skating," she said. "But right now, I can't think of what it might be." Suddenly she grinned, with a flash of dimples. "Anyway, listen," she said. "I'm hungry. Let's go scarf up some food."