Kerry Lynch emerges from the trees on the far side of the meadow in West Yellowstone, Mont., chuffing like a coal-burning locomotive, white bursts of chilled breath drifting back along either side of his head. As he flashes past, using his long, powerful skiing stride, he leaves the impression of a lithe, whippy body and a pleasant, athletic face—athletic because his nose has obviously been ravaged a time or two. Suddenly, as Lynch skis along, he disappears for a moment behind a stand of aspen and pine, and then at a growing distance, in the black-and-white winter world, his image flickers between the trees like someone in an oldtime movie.
"He's actually picking up speed," says Doug Peterson, cross-country coach of the U.S. Nordic combined team, as he watches Lynch train. Peterson looks up from his stopwatch. "Now, that's awesome. Kerry skis the 15 kilometers—the whole 9.3 miles—like it was some mad, all-out sprint. He gets stronger as the race wears on. He knocks off guys one by one as he goes. And he usually runs down his last man in the stadium, just before the finish line." And then Peterson makes a cold pronouncement: "Kerry Lynch," he says, "has the best chance of any U.S. Nordic skier of winning a medal at Sarajevo. Any U.S. Nordic skier."
Truly? But in the combined, with its jumps and all?
Peterson nods. "The works."
February 6, 1984
Well, a certain coachly pride can be forgiven, partly because the event in question is the Nordic combined. Here's a tiny, slightly daft sport-within-a-sport, one of the jewels of the Winter Olympics—a hoary event where few are called and even fewer chosen. The skiers must master two mean disciplines that make opposing demands on their bodies: First they jump three times on the 70-meter hill, and then they race 15 kilometers cross-country. The whole business takes two days, and the scoring system is so archaic and complicated that the few spectators who show up are always confused. Only when all the points are totaled does anybody really discover who did what to whom. And against the greater Olympic backdrop, not too many people care.
Now maybe some Americans will. After almost a century of Scandinavian domination in the combined, the U.S. has come up with Kerry Lynch. As a 22-year-old in his first Olympic competition, he came in 18th at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. By the end of 1982, he had climbed to fifth in the world standings. And last year, among other things, he won the U.S. championship and was awarded the King's Cup at Norway's Holmenkollen, only the second time in 100 years that an American had made off with that most prestigious prize. Lynch also won at Lahti, under the Finns' very noses, and he was second at Sapporo, Japan.
Indeed, if there had been such a thing as a Nordic Combined World Cup in 1983, as there is this year, Lynch probably would have taken that bauble home, too. He was leading the international circuit going into the final meet in Strbske Pleso, Czechoslovakia in March—but the U.S. team, assuming that most of the top competitors would not show up in Strbske Pleso, and that Lynch had the title wrapped up anyway, chose not to attend, something that certainly wouldn't have occurred had this been an official World Cup event. A couple of East Germans sneaked ahead of Lynch on points earned at Strbske Pleso; still, he ended the year in the world's top three, the best standing ever by a U.S. combined skier.
As gratifying as that lofty ranking may have been for Lynch, it may be just as notable for the psychological kick it provided American Nordic skiers. They've long been obliged to stand blinking in the reflected toothy glamour of the U.S. Alpine ski team, with its Phils and Tamaras and Cindys. But now they've got their very own Kerry Joel Lynch, 26, the pride of Silver Creek, Colo. and nearby road-houses. Lynch is lean and handsome at 5'10" and 155 pounds, and suitably dappled with scars, including two sewed-back-on fingers. He's a former giant slalom ski racer and teen-age slalom ace, an ex-rodeo bull rider and collegiate boxer.
And he's a cowboy dance-band drummer—more on that presently—and a knockout stand-up impressionist. Lynch has a wealth of faces and accents, and, if he wants, he can make his eyes go all blank like Little Orphan Annie's. Gosh all fishhooks, Daddy Warbucks! He pretends to stand at the top of a ski jump, teetering forward to peek over the edge, and squeaks, "Ooooooh, look at all the teensy people down there! They're like ants." And then, leaping onto the imaginary inrun, he looks around in wide-eyed wonder as the world flies by.
Want to know how Lynch's nose got broken the first time? Not skiing. This is one of his better routines, in which he plays all the parts. "Well, I'd just given this 1,100-pound steer a bath," he says. "I'd scrubbed him all over, to show him in the auction ring back home in Colorado, at the Kremmling County Fair. And I was blow-drying him with my hair dryer so he'd look pretty. I got to blow-drying him back around his tail. Well, maybe even under his tail a bit. I was daydreaming about how much money he'd bring.... Well, he gradually got this really grieved look on his face and he sort of sloooowly cocked back one hind leg and, suddenly—pow!"
But that's only one episode in what Lynch now sees as a perfect childhood, lumps and all. The Lynches are a close family, rugged Westerners and longtime Coloradans, and all eight of them have multiple interests. There's even a family band, known as (groan!) the Lynch Mob, which often includes Dad on bass, brother Doug on steel guitar, cousin Bob Chase on lead guitar and Kerry on drums. Available for dances, roundups and barn burnings. "We're so talented," says Kerry, "that we can, honest now, play two kinds of music: country and western." The entire Lynch mob includes Mom, Lois, and Dad, Jim, Doug, 30, and four sisters: Dana, 29, Lynette, 28, Sandra, 23, and Wanda, 21. The fifth, and youngest, sister, Brenda, was killed in a car crash last year at age 18.
Jim sells heavy construction equipment, but from 1965 to '75 he was foreman of the Slash-J-Slash Ranch near Grand Lake, where Kerry raised his own steers in a 4-H program. "I'd buy a calf for about $200," he says, "and then sell him for maybe $1,500 the next fall. It made me a little money, and it taught me a lot about life. It was my very favorite steer that kicked my nose over to one side of my face."
In the off-season, Jim was a racer and ski patrolman at the nearby Winter Park Ski Area, a circumstance that effectively eliminated any need for baby-sitters to face the Lynch mob. This was a Colorado day-care center: Jim simply took the kids to work with him. He'd strap on baby skis, turn them loose on the slopes in the morning and pick them up in the evening. The entire mountain served as a sort of nursery. "I don't remember learning to ski," Lynch says. "I've always skied. Listen, when I was five, I was a veteran; I suddenly had to back off so I could attend half-day kindergarten. That really bummed me out."
Next thing anybody knew, Lynch was also flying off Winter Park's ski jumps—there are six of them, from three meters to 50 meters. Jumping skis are wide and deliberately klunky for stability, and they're hooked on to the skier's feet by toepieces, thus freeing the heels for proper jumping aerodynamics and Telemark landings. But they weren't for the 7-year-old Lynch; he'd roar off the jumps wearing stiff Alpine boots and skis, with everything locked in place, while grownups winced and turned away. "I was looking for lift," he says now. "But I always seemed to get turned upside down in the air and I landed on my head a lot. So I gave it all up."
It was a short retirement. By the time Lynch was at Middle Park High in Granby, he was a four-event skier, competing in the slalom, giant slalom, cross-country and jumping, with a little singing and dancing and drum playing on the side. But his ski career had a decidedly ambivalent aspect to it. By 1973 he had made the Junior Nationals as a Nordic. In 1975, as an Alpine racer, he won the Colorado state slalom championship and was second in the GS. And later that year, he showed up at Western State College in Gunnison, armed with a skiing scholarship and the desire to do it all.
"I wanted to win the world ski jumping championship one day and the slalom title the next," he says, "and find instant fame and riches. And girls." He runs a hand through his close-cut hair, fluffing up imaginary curls. "Hi, there, fans. I'm Jean-Claude Superstar. But, nope. In 1976 the coach finally told me, 'Look, Lynch, we got maybe 50 Alpine racers here—everybody can go downhill—but only about 10 Nordics. So you are now officially a Nordic.' " That did it. That year Lynch won the Junior National Nordic Combined Championship.
Thus was born a combined star, and now, back on the frozen meadow in West Yellowstone, Peterson points out why Lynch is so special: "Kerry's steadily improving on the jumps, but it's his background as an Alpine racer that makes him so murderous on the cross-country. These racecourses all have downhill sections, some of them pretty hairy. But Kerry is fearless, and he runs them flat out where the others can't."
Indeed, Lynch wears his fearlessness as if it were some sort of magic cologne one splashes on after shaving. He walks into a roomful of Nordic racers, with his rakish, We-Fly-at-Dawn look, and everybody grins at the sight of him. Tim Caldwell, a 14-year veteran on the U.S. Nordic racing team, is asked just what it is that makes combined skiers seem so different. Caldwell spends a few long moments composing his answer. "Well," he says, "they're crazy, for one thing."
Fair enough. Lynch has given up just about everything else for this last dash at the Olympics. He has dropped out of Western State for now so that he can train year-round. The past two summers he has trained in Europe, last summer living in Thun, Switzerland, ski jumping in nearby Kandersteg and skiing on the Crans-Montana Glacier. He has come back to Colorado just in time to start winter skiing.
All the travel and European training has cost Lynch a bunch of dollars, and Nordic skiers aren't nearly as well sponsored as Alpine racers, particularly those U.S. slalom stars who are at the same level in their sport as Lynch is in his. "Some of them have mink skis," he says, "while I...." He plucks forlornly at his scrubbed-out, faded Adidas sweat shirt and adopts a Little Annie Rooney expression. "No, but seriously. What the heck. I'm at last coming into my own in this game—even if I am up to my wazoo in debt. If I do win at Sarajevo, it'll take me one more year to pay everybody off. But I can't stop now."
Certainly not after the wonders of last season: In the cross-country section of the seven world-class combined meets he entered, Lynch won four and never finished lower than third; in the jumps he stayed close enough to the top to keep himself in the running. Combined scoring provides, among other impossible-to-figure things, that one minute of cross-country race time is worth nine points in jumping—which, trust me now, plays right into the hands of a strong racer like Lynch. Last year in Sapporo, for example, Lynch was only eighth after the jumping portion of the competition, but his first-place finish in the 15-km race enabled him to place second overall.
But no Lynch finish was niftier than the one at the Holmenkollen. "When the jumping scores were totaled," he says, "I was six points off the leaders, which ain't bad. But it also meant that I'd be the 11th starter in the race—not exactly the pole position. And there was Thomas Sand-berg, the defending champion and Norwegian hero, ahead of me in the ninth spot. I knew I could run well enough to make up ground on the field—but, I swear, there's no thrill in the world like having the desire to do it."
As an example of his enormous strength. Lynch usually picks up the pace about five kilometers out on the course, blowing fenders and doors off tiring racers all the way to the finish. In Oslo, he passed nine racers and then flashed past a stunned Sandberg smack at the finish line while more than 100,000 Norwegians went totally bananas. Lynch was awarded the King's Cup after winning the 15-km race by one foot and the overall combined title by .2 in the scoring. "Well deserved, my boy," King Olav told him at the presentation.
Thus Lynch came into this Olympic year as a mature racer at the peak of his form—indeed, he's tied for the lead with two East Germans in the early phases of the new World Cup competition. After that grinding workout on West Yellowstone's terraced hillsides at 30 or so below zero, he mentally inventoried various body parts and appliances, isolating them and passing out instructions as if they were alertly waiting to respond. "O.K., forehead, time to relax" is typical of what he said. Lynch also does this sort of thing before his jumps—a mental countdown that takes him approximately 10 seconds from top to toes. "And then, totally ready, I ease off and look around at all the scenery," he says.
Lord knows, some of his body parts have probably come to welcome any sort of regard. "There was a time," Lynch says, "when I was accident-prone. Let's see. I broke my right leg slalom racing. I've often fallen off the world while jumping and cracked up all my shoulders. I got a compression back-fracture inner-tubing down a hill. I rode bulls in high school and college rodeo—not always well. They've kicked me all over the place. My nose was broken while boxing in college. That was break No. 2. Dumb, right? End of unpromising fight career.
"And, let's see. I suffered all the usual ranching accidents. I poked a piece of barbed wire into my left eye, and now things look a little distorted to me when I'm up on top of the ski jump. Eyeglasses or contact lenses wouldn't help, see, because what I'm actually doing is looking through a scar on the surface of my eye." He shrugs. "Well, maybe I'd be able to see the scar a little better with glasses. And then one day in 1979,1 cut off the first two fingers on my right hand with a radial saw. But the doctors sewed them right back on, and now they're just fine. See?" He holds the hand up for inspection. "Of course, the fingers are on upside down, but...."
But the most dramatic of Lynch's physical wrenches—and miracle recoveries—came just last fall. In April 1983 an attack of patella tendinitis in his right knee had been surgically overcome by U.S. ski team chief physician Dr. Richard Steadman (SI, Feb. 21, 1983). But gradually, as Lynch's summer training grew more intense, the knee stiffened again and became more and more painful. "I taped it and I braced it," Lynch says, "but I finally started to get that sinking feeling that I wasn't going to make the Olympics."
Relief came from a surprise source. This isn't a plug—it's just what happened. Lynch read about Korean physical therapist Daeshik Seo in the Aug. 8 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Seo had worked with heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, former junior welterweight titlist Aaron Pryor and several other boxers, producing seemingly miraculous cures for injuries by using acupressure and massage. Lynch tracked down Seo, who was busy, as it turned out, and not exactly thrilled at the prospect of meeting a Nordic combined skier, whatever that was. But Lynch can be very convincing: "I just told him the entire fate of America and the U.S. ski team and the whole free world was at stake," he says.
The rest of it makes another stand-up drama, with Lynch playing both parts: "By the time I got to see Seo, my knee was totally wrecked. But he looked it over. And then he grabbed my kneecap. And he lifted it off, like this! And he probed around behind it with his fingertips, doing some heavy acupressure. And then he let it snap back—pock! He looked up at me and said, 'You will not have any more problems. You can walk now.' " Lynch looks doubtful, testing a shaky leg, afraid to put his full weight on it. He stands, tottering. And then, suddenly, he holds both hands up to frame his face, peering out between them soul-fully, like Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. "Look! I can walk!" he says. "Hallelujah! I can walk! I can jump! I can jump real high!" Lynch has been walking and jumping ever since. Because of Lynch's enthusiastic endorsement, Seo has been traveling with the combined team since December.
Devotedly watching this docudrama is Chrissy Lewis, 22, tall and slender, a five-year member of the U.S. Nordic ski team and Lynch's steady girl friend. (He was married briefly in 1978 and has a 4-year-old daughter named Kera.) "Kerry's like an inspiration to all of us," says Lewis. "When you figure that the combined is such a little-known event—boy, maybe even a dying event for lack of interest—it's just great that he's become the best in the world. And he kind of pushes the rest of us along. It's so good to have someone who cares."
Lynch's natural ebullience is part of the reason for his success, says Dr. Rainer Martens, the Nordic team's sports psychologist. "Kerry doesn't need to be motivated like some of the others. It's intrinsic with him. All Kerry needs to know is the optimum arousal needed to win at both events."
Fair enough. For Lynch, optimum arousal should strike just before 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, three days after the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics. That's the starting time for the 70-meter jump. The 15-km race comes at 11 a.m. the next day. "What a weird sport," Lynch says. "In jumping, you've got to have the muscles of a sprinter, the better to explode off the takeoff. For the cross-country, you've got to convert over to endurance muscles, all slow-twitch fibers. No wonder there are times when your body finally says, 'Hey, uh, fella? Look, could we just do one of these things or the other?' "
But Lynch will do both, of course, and well. If fate follows form, he'll place high in the jumping—somewhere in the first three would be nice, the top 10 would be reasonable to expect and would still put him in good position to win the gold. He breaks into another fearless grin. "Go ahead," he says. "Handicap me for the gold medal. Now, that's the kind of pressure I can live with."