Maybe your great uncle was Norwegian, or maybe you came from one of those chilled Midwestern cities where they manufacture winter-sport champions at the same rate they do beer. For whatever reason, when you were a little thing somebody laced you into a pair of blades and you made a tentative push-and-shove circle around the rink. Then you gained a little confidence and began kicking and elbowing with the other unruly children. But no one ever suggested you might win an Olympic medal for this behavior.
Well, now you can. They have even thought up a rather exalted name for the event: short-track speed skating. It may also be referred to as pack skating without gravely offending its practitioners, a sensitive bunch who maintain that their sport requires just as much skill as its older, better-known sibling, metric speed skating. This may be true to an extent, but once you have viewed the foot-thick padding in the corners of the rink and seen a few bodies sprawled on the ice, you will never mistake pack skating for speed skating again.
If you want to earn the undying enmity of a pack skater, compare his sport to Roller Derby. But anything new seems to demand comparisons. O.K., then. Short-track skating is what happened when Zola Budd tripped Mary Decker Slaney. It's what happened when Little Al Unser tried to go underneath Emerson Fittipaldi and spun out with 1½ laps to go. What it amounts to is this: a race (in the Olympics, either 500 meters and a 3,000-meter relay for women, or 1,000 meters and a 5,000-meter relay for men) with anywhere from four to six skaters ducking, passing and jostling, all the while maintaining the familiar rhythmic motion of speed skaters, around a 111-meter oval track laid out on a rink. First one to the finish line wins. No pairs of skaters racing the clock as they take interminable laps around a freezing outdoor track, no esoteric discussions of technique. Instead, there is just a bunch of people going real fast and sometimes falling flat or knocking each other down.
"When you have four to six guys going that fast around a rink, sometimes it's hard to make rational decisions," says Andy Gabel, a short-track Olympic-medal contender and a member of the U.S. metric speed skating team from 1981 to '89.
In pack skating deliberate contact is allegedly forbidden. But that doesn't mean it doesn't occur with alarming frequency, especially in international competitions, or that tensions don't run high. The sport also has been called a track meet on ice, which is probably the best characterization. There are a series of preliminary heats, quarterfinals, semis and finals. Medals are awarded on both a team and solo basis, and, as in track, the relay events have a glamour of their own. At the 1991 World Short Track Speedskating Championships in Sydney last March, in a competition to determine the field for Albertville, the U.S. qualified one man in the 1,000-meter event, two women in the 500 and a team for the women's relay. But it is difficult to gauge America's medal hopes because of the sheer unpredictability of the sport.
Take what happened in the women's 1,000-meter final at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, where pack skating was a demonstration sport. The race concluded with every woman among the top four in tears, and a few others distraught besides. Chinese skaters wept because two of their teammates had fallen, Canadian skaters wept because one of the Chinese had taken out one of their favorites, Maryse Perreault, in a suicide pass while battling for second place, and Yan Li of China really wept because she had survived to win the gold medal. "But that's short track," former U.S. coach Gregg Planert says, shrugging.
A short-track skater must be adroit at drafting, passing, sprinting—and, above all, at reacting quickly, because an unpredictable or wild skater might suddenly take you down. "I can't watch it," Gabel's mother, Evie, says. "Anything can happen, and it does." For that reason, there are few truly dominant performers. The current world champion among men is Great Britain's Wilf O'Reilly, but the Canadians, Japanese and South Koreans are threats, and so, perhaps, are Gabel or the U.S. team's alternate, Charlie King. Among the women, the Canadians, namely Sylvie Daigle, a five-time world champion, and the Chinese arc strongest, but Cathy Turner and Amy Peterson of the U.S. have the speed to suggest outside chances at medals.
Anything and everything has happened to Gabel, a 27-year-old from Northbook, Ill., who works part-time in marketing and p.r. for a Wisconsin HMO. At the July '89 Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City, Gabel broke a wrist when he hit the boards. Then he was a fraction of a second from being among the fastest anywhere before a calamitous wreck at the world championships in Sydney last March. He was leading his second-round heat in the 500 when an Australian skater knocked him off his feet and into the boards headfirst at 25 mph. No foul was called, perhaps because the offender was an Aussie.
Gabel continued to skate through the season, but in June his back gave out, an injury possibly related to the fall in Australia. He missed 2½ months of training and relinquished the role of fastest American to King, and for a while his place on the Olympic squad was uncertain. "You train your butt off and get knocked down," Gabel says. "Those things happen. They just happen less to the better skaters." Though Gabel's back continues to bother him somewhat, he did win the U.S. Olympic trials at Lake Placid in December and will compete in the 1,000 at Albertville. It was the only Olympic event in which the U.S. men were able to qualify. Gabel remains the U.S.'s most decorated skater, a spokesman for his sport and something of a father figure whom younger skaters go to when they need to repair or fine-tune their skates.
The capriciousness of pack skating is why King, a 22-year-old from Studio City, Calif., who just recently grew out of a platinum-haired punk phase, feels it is smarter to skate from the front, and he has the quicksilver talent to bolt to the fore. But even then nothing is guaranteed. King was leading the 1990 World Team Trials 1,500-meter final by 15 feet when he simply fell. Still, King says, "out front is the safest place to be. Everyone gets his fair share of spills. It's hand-to-hand combat. There's a 50-50 chance you'll be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Turner, a 29-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., is the sort of skater who causes falls. She has a lack of form that borders on the dangerous, but a driving ambition that could win her a medal. Lately she has been turning in record-setting lap times—better than those of the Canadian women. "I don't know what I'm doing," she says. "I just go."
U.S. team coach Jack Mortell says of Turner, "My prediction is, with the absence of bad luck, she'll medal. No woman is faster in the world." Turner's weakness is inexperience, a liability not shared, oddly enough, with the 20-year-old Peterson, who has been a member of the national team since she was 13 and has competed in five world championships. Peterson, of Maple-wood, Minn., comes by her skates as a matter of heritage. Her uncle Gene Sandvig was a member of the 1952 and '56 U.S. Olympic speed skating teams. Turner was 10th overall at last year's worlds, Peterson 13th.
Turner's rise to such heights was a surprise, since she quit skating competitively from 1980 to '88 to pursue a singing and song-writing career in Las Vegas and at one time went under the name of Niki Newland. She also moonlights as a computer programmer, has a blue belt in taekwondo, has won cycling and water ski championships in New York, and has finished well in NASTAR ski races. She was also a high school track and diving champion. Her approach to her athletic endeavors is borderline reckless. "It's a style when you don't have one," she says.
Just the ticket for short-track skating.