He knew in his heart he could skate well. Not win a medal, necessarily—that was never the goal—but skate well. Do himself and his coaches, Evy and Mary Scotvold, proud. So 27-year-old Paul Wylie stayed on in amateur figure skating long after his peers had retired or turned pro. Stayed on past the 1988 Olympics, in which he finished 10th. Stayed on past the 1990 and '91 world championships, in which he finished 10th and 11th, respectively. Stayed on to skate in the Albertville Games despite all too often being a disappointment waiting to happen.
But the figure skating god must love gumption, for last Saturday night, in the most surprising and uplifting performance of his life, Wylie showed nine judges, 9,000 wildly approving spectators and a worldwide television audience what his coaches, friends and family had known for years: That here was a singularly talented skater whose gift was all the rarer because it was steeled by extraordinary determination. Wylie's quiet belief in himself was sometimes misinterpreted as an unwillingness to face reality. Make no mistake, though, that resolve earned him the men's silver medal—many observers thought he should have won the gold—which capped an Olympic experience that Wylie later referred to as "serendipity."
It was a popular result, for Wylie has long been admired in the skating community for his intelligence, friendliness and artistry. People rooted for him, even though he was known as a "practice skater." In 11 years of major competitions, Wylie either fell or staggered through his routines. He knew it, his parents knew it, the Scotvolds knew it. He didn't stand up under pressure. It had happened as recently as last month's U.S. nationals, an event Wylie has never won; he skated so poorly that he changed into his street clothes before the medals ceremony, only to discover that his chief competitors had also botched their programs and that he'd finished second, qualifying for Albertville. "I'd already moved on to the rest of my life, mentally," said Wylie last week.
The rest of his life probably will include law school. Wylie, who graduated from Harvard last June, spent the weeks leading up to the nationals filling out 11 law school applications. Smart cookie. But in the opinion of Evy Scotvold, who coaches Wylie in Acton, Mass., Wylie's intelligence was part of the problem. "His brain's killing him," Scotvold said the day after the opening ceremony in Albertville. "He's got to stop thinking out there."
February 24, 1992
Scotvold wanted Wylie to quit analyzing his technique while he was skating and allow muscle memory to take over. Every time Wylie approached a triple Axel, he was stricken with paralysis by analysis. The issue came to a head during an early practice session in Albertville. Wylie was having difficulty with his jumps, and when he approached Evy for advice, Evy told him he hadn't been watching him. Wylie fumed. Scotvold snapped that if Wylie couldn't figure out by himself how to jump after all these years, they both were wasting their time. Then Evy stepped out of character by saying, "Look, you owe me. I don't owe you. I've put everything I had into you for the last seven years, and you can't stay on your goddam feet."
Wylie was stung. The Scotvolds, you must understand, care for him as they would a son. They had attended his Harvard graduation, which—before last Saturday night—was the proudest Evy and Mary had ever been of Wylie. During the last week of practice in Acton, Mary had burst into tears three times just at the thought that their seven years together would soon be over. And here was Evy telling Wylie that the skater owed him.
Wylie didn't talk to Evy the rest of the day, but he responded to the put-down by having the best week of practice that Scotvold could remember. In recalling the incident, Evy admitted that the harsh medicine was a tactic his own father, a former hockey coach, had often used to motivate him. "If Paul skates lousy, it'll be my fault," said Evy. "You can't win. But you've got to try something."
Last Thursday, the day of the short program, which historically has been his downfall, Wylie was a bundle of nerves. He skated well at the morning practice. Nothing new there. Afterward, however, rather than sit in the stands and visit with his family and his girlfriend, Kristin Brunner, Wylie hurried back to the Olympic Village. He later called Brunner, a 19-year-old sophomore premed student at Harvard, to apologize for having stormed off. The Unified Team had been working out, and the last thing he needed on a day of the competition was to watch Viktor Petrenko, a native of the Ukraine and one of the favorites to win the gold.
This was Brunner's first trip to Europe. Indeed, it was the first time she had ever seen Wylie compete in person. He had never before asked her along because of what lie called his competition-week, Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. However, he had found that having her with him helped. She is from Hot Springs, Ark., and knows next to nothing about skating. He wanted to see her, but he didn't want to go to the house in the town of Frontenex where she was staying with his parents, his two sisters, his sponsor Lisa Webster, and other friends and relatives—a house oozing with tension and skating expertise. Could Brunner come up to the athletes' village?
So she took a car up to Brides-les-Bains, 40 minutes away, and spent the afternoon with Wylie talking about home and school friends. About anything but skating. It was exactly what Wylie needed, and after Brunner left, he took a nap.
Any pressure Wylie felt was self-imposed, because no one expected him to contend seriously for a medal. Canada's Kurt Browning, the three-time defending world champion, was the overwhelming favorite, followed by Petrenko and the other two Americans, Todd Eldredge and Christopher Bowman, who had each won the U.S. nationals twice.
Thursday, however, was a bad night for favorites. First Eldredge, who'd had a terrible week of practice after missing the nationals with a back injury, lost his concentration at the end of an otherwise clean program and fell on a routine double Axel. He finished ninth in the short program, two places below Bowman, the reigning U.S. champion, who touched down with his hand while attempting a triple Axel combination. The biggest shock, though, came when Browning crash-landed his triple Axel and finished fourth, throwing open the competition.
Wylie, too, seemed headed for disaster—as usual. While attempting a triple Axel in the warmup, he hurtled off his axis—he looked like a man leaping into a bed—and took the hardest fall he'd taken all week. "That was the best thing that ever happened to him," Evy said later. "It snapped him into consciousness. He was lunging at his jumps, which is like a golfer overswinging. It got him thinking, 'Stand up, stay upright, don't lurch,' which is what we were talking about all week."
And, wonder of wonders, he did stand up. He skated his short program perfectly, with the grace and dazzling spins and footwork that his fans have admired for years. His jumps were not as technically difficult as those of Petrenko, who was the leader after the short program, or of Czechoslovakia's Petr Barna, so he wound up third behind them. But he had stood up. He'd gotten the monkey off his back and, with most of the favorites having fallen, put himself in position to take home a medal, "I don't know what to say, I'm so happy," he told Brunner. "I've never skated this well."
Last Saturday's free-skating program, however, would account for two thirds of the scoring. When asked if he believed he could win, Wylie grinned and said, "No! No! I can't approach it that way or I'll freak myself out and skate worse than ever." He had to approach it like another performance on the practice rink. He had to try to stay calm.
"I did allow myself to think, for about a half hour, how it would feel to win the bronze," Wylie said afterward. "How it would change my life and vindicate my decision to stay in the sport after Calgary, and especially after last year's worlds in Munich. Now I have a silver medal. I still can't believe it."
Wylie stuck to the same routine he had followed on Thursday. After a Saturday morning practice he asked Brunner to come to the Olympic Village, where they spent an hour or more eating oranges, listening to Garth Brooks and, of all things, coloring. Brunner is a big fan of coloring. Wylie colored a picture of the opening ceremony. She colored an oboe. An oboe. She left him with the music of her laughter, and he went in and lay down for a nap.
Wylie had a good draw that night, immediately after Browning and Petrenko. The judges could score him without reserving a batch of high marks for the favorites. As it turned out, they needn't have worried. Browning, who'd lost a month of training in December because of a slipped disk, touched down while attempting one triple Axel and stepped out of another triple after one revolution. By the final minute of his program, Browning was out of gas and, sadly for him, out of contention. He wound up placing sixth.
Petrenko wasn't much better. After starting strongly, landing a couple of nice combinations, he flattened out like a blini. In the final two minutes of his program, with the Olympic title seemingly assured, he doubled one triple jump, nearly stuck in the ice while attempting an Arabian, fell on a triple Axel and singled a double. Still, the judges gave him high marks, seemingly determined to make Petrenko, a stylist who got the bronze in Calgary four years ago, the first male singles skater from the former Soviet Union to win a gold medal.
On this night, though, Wylie was better. He hurt his chances of winning by attempting no triple jumps in combination, by two-footing the landing of a triple Salchow and by doubling a triple Lutz. But the two triple Axels he tried were perfect. And he skated by far the most compelling program of the night. As Wylie so elegantly showed on this evening, jumping is only one way to get the fans out of their seats. Skating to the theme from the movie Henry V, he mesmerized the audience with his dynamic spins, dramatic lines and flawless timing. Wylie's three Russian splits at the end of his program, his toe picks slapping the palms of his hands, called to mind 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton and brought the spectators to their feet for the only time all night.
Two of the judges placed Wylie first. However, the consensus—such as it was, for the judging was all over the map throughout the evening—had him second, behind Petrenko. Barna, who cleanly landed the only quadruple jump of the competition but immediately ran out of steam, took the bronze. Meanwhile Bowman, landing seven of eight triple jumps, gained ground to wind up fourth.
Not that Wylie was complaining. After years of watching others reap the glory, he was thrilled to be anywhere on the medal platform. Heck, he'd been thrilled just to skate in the same group with Petrenko and Browning. Accepting his medal, he waved to the crowd and then spotted the Harvard banner being unfurled by Brunner and his parents. "Do you believe this?" he mouthed. Then holding aloft a rose, Wylie blew them a kiss.
"Did you see that?" someone in the family said. "He blew us a kiss."
Brunner beamed. "But I caught it," she said.