For two years in motel rooms around the world, Eric Flaim of Pembroke, Mass., got into bed, closed his eyes and received an Olympic medal. He stared at the American flag, shook hands with a man in a dark suit and accepted a bouquet of roses. Only problem was, sooner or later he would wake up.
In Calgary last week Flaim saw the same image. The American flag. The man in the dark suit. The bouquet of roses. This time, however, his eyes were wide open.
"I'd always envisioned how it would be," Flaim recalled. "Every night I'd imagine it. If you can't perceive it, then you can't do it, right?"
And the real thing? "It wasn't exactly like I'd always envisioned it. I always saw myself getting a gold."
Flaim was .06 of a second too slow in the 1,500-meter race and had to settle for second place, but for him and the emotionally pummeled U.S. speed skating team, silver was more than shiny enough. This was the first medal for the American skaters since 1980. But more than that, it was the medal the team needed to soften a week of tragedy, twisted luck and brutal infighting.
Who wasn't hurting for Dan Jansen, who had been favored to win the men's 500 but learned of his sister Jane's death the morning of the race and fell on the track that evening? When Jansen broke from the line Thursday in the 1,000 meters, he seemed bent on expunging all the sadness in one cleansing burst of speed. At the 600-meter split, he was .31 of a second ahead of the leader, Nikolai Gulyaev of the Soviet Union, and only had one turn left. But then his right skate buckled inward, and for the second time in two races, he found himself sliding headfirst across the ice. How cold can sport be?
Later Jansen seemed almost glad it was over, so that he could return to West Allis, Wis., for his sister's wake. "I can go home now and be with my family," he said. "My family is not going to be disappointed. They know I did my best." But he also said, "I train four years, and I don't even finish a race."
Add to Jansen's troubles the disappointment of his close friend, Nick Thometz, who came to Calgary as a medal favorite and will leave with an eighth and an 18th. A blood disorder had forced him to take medication that sapped his strength. "Here I am, a guy who'd never put anything more than vitamin C in his body and then to have all this crap going through my system...."
What didn't help, either, was the U.S. team's newest event, greed skating. Two team members threatened to sue over the way the team selected its entrants, and two others filed grievances. None of them, of course, finished near a medal. No wonder Flaim moved out of the Olympic Village early into the Games.
Then again Flaim has always been a little bit removed from the rest of skatingdom. He wears sunglasses instead of goggles during the 10,000; he refuses to sound humble if that's not how he feels; and instead of relying on the U.S. coach, he has two personal trainers, one for dry land, the other for ice. Nor has he allowed anyone to force him to specialize. A former hockey brat, Flaim burns bright at all distances and competed in four of the five men's events.
In the 5,000 meters he finished fourth, only 2.46 seconds behind gold medalist Tomas Gustafson of Sweden. The next day, in the 1,000, he was heading into the final turn close to the gold-medal pace when his skate snagged the cuff of his racing skin, causing him to lose his balance. "I might have had the gold," Flaim says. Instead, he finished fourth again, albeit only one-half second behind the winner, Gulyaev.
Going into the 1,500, Flaim tried to change his luck by donning a red and blue racing skin instead of his hideous orange and gray one. "Got a lot of fast times in these babies," he said. Then he came out in the first pairing of the night and set a world record of 1:52.12. "I wanted to put a world record up and try to intimidate people."
It worked. For about five minutes. Then Andre Hoffmann, of East Germany, a balding 26-year-old veteran, made the journey that minute fraction faster. Flaim held on to second, and by the end of the night he was cradling a piece of silver in his hands. "I'm sure first feels better than this," he said. "But this sure feels better than fourth."
Flaim's workweek wasn't over with the silver, however. The next day, in the 10,000, he finished—care to guess?—fourth. Again the winner was the Swede, Gustafson, who surprised himself with a world record.
Such an Eric-come-lately is Flaim that he doesn't even have a sponsor or an agent yet and was all but overlooked in the U.S. team's brochure. Now they're talking about him becoming the next Eric Heiden. Funny, so is Flaim.
"Will I enter all five at Albertville [France, the site of the 1992 Games]? I don't know. I'd like to. Why not?"
But that is then and this is now, and Flaim's present is burning clear and warm. And after his longtime vision finally came real, so was his heart.
Holding up the medal, he said, "DJ, this one's for you and Jane."