The dinner show was over at the Winter Olympics last Saturday night. Most of the crowd had gone home, and the pack skating 500-meter final had the feel of a late-night, drinks-only kind of event. Cathy Turner was right at home.
Turner, a 29-year-old lounge act from Rochester, N.Y., skated upright through a sprawl-ridden race, surviving a near fall just before the finish to win by a breath—.04 of a second over China's Li Yan. The victory earned Turner her second medal in two days. She had already led a U.S. quartet to a surprising second-place finish in the 3,000-meter relay. Thus we had this: an obscure 5'2" platinum-blonde songwriter and sometime nightclub singer with the stage name of Niki Newland joining the very famous Bonnie Blair as the only American double-medalists of the Games.
Turner knows show biz, and she knows a good story when she is one. No sooner had she stepped down from the medal podium than she started talking about potential book and movie deals. Who wouldn't, after all, be interested in the story of an athlete who quit skating for eight years, toured with a Las Vegas-style barnstorming act called the Joel Dane Show, composed the immortal ballad Sexy, Kinky Tomboy and then returned to skating and went to the Olympics? Who could resist a last act as dramatic and action filled as the one Turner wrote on Saturday night?
Short-track skating—unlike the long-track version practiced by Blair and that lot—is a perilous undertaking. In short track, a gang of competitors zips around a 365-foot circle laid out in a hockey rink. As you might expect, bodies go flying. In the 500-meter competition Turner had to survive particularly dicey quarterfinal and semifinal heats, in which skaters were constantly jostling for position, colliding and spilling across the ice. Of the final seven races in the 500—four quarterfinals, two semis and the final—only one heat did not include some sort of fall.
March 2, 1992
Entering the final, Turner was thought to be a medal contender, but not for the gold. Chinese and Canadian skaters have dominated the sport since it debuted as an Olympic demonstration event four years ago. However, Turner's—and everyone else's—chances were improved when four-time world champion Sylvie Daigle of Canada fell in her quarterfinal heat and was eliminated.
Halfway through the final Turner seized the lead, and she kept it until the last turn, where, with only 60 feet remaining, Li came up on the inside and attempted to pass her. Li clipped Turner's left skate while making her move. Turner wobbled, and Li gained the lead. Turner recovered her balance, and the two women sped toward the finish. They strained to push their skates in front of them. "I saw her thrust her skate forward, and I knew I had to thrust mine," said Turner. "I thought she got me at the line."
Assuming she had been beaten, Turner skated in a circle with her head down. Then she looked up and saw her name on the electronic scoreboard—in first place. She listened to the loudspeaker announcement, still unconvinced. "With every single word, I thought they'd say somebody else's name," said Turner. When reality finally sank in, she grabbed her helmet and began jumping up and down on her skates.
It's fair to say Turner had never been a marquee attraction until she played Albertville, so she can be forgiven the scenery chewing that attended her victory. Turner's mother, Nancy Price, vaulted out of the stands. Around her daughter she draped an American flag, which had been given to them—just in case—by folks back in Rochester. Looking like Lady Liberty on skates, Turner took her victory lap. And then the made-for-TV-movie dialogue started spilling forth. "I never made it to the top in anything before," said Turner. "You don't have a lot of victorious moments in music."
Turner's medal, which she would keep next to her pillow that night, represented the triumphant conclusion to a 3½-year athletic comeback. In the late '70s she was a promising long-track skater, and she used to train with Blair on the oval in West Allis, Wis. But Turner left the sport in 1980, convinced that a career as a world-class athlete was not to be hers. During the next two Olympiads, Turner was singing, writing songs, attending half a dozen colleges and trying various other sports, including downhill skiing, diving and even tournament waterskiing.
Over breakfast one morning in '88, she decided to try short-track skating after reading a newspaper account about a friend who had become a pack skater. "I should be doing this," she told her mother. Price answered, "If that's what you want to do, let's find out how to do it." Turner wound up at the Olympic team's short-track training center at Northern Michigan University, where she spent the next three years refining her skating skills and completing her degree in computer programming.
Now, her rebound complete, Turner is contemplating a second comeback—in music. "I did it," she said on Sunday in reference to her victory. "Now I don't have to skate anymore."
Turner said that when she made the Olympic team, her show business career began to take off. Agents started calling about those movie deals, and five record companies expressed interest in hearing her demos. That flurry of attention will surely increase with the gold medal. "It's going to happen," Turner said confidently.
Soon Turner the songwriter may have more on her rèsumè than Sexy, Kinky Tomboy or another of her compositions, Born to Be Champions, the theme HBO uses occasionally as a prelude to its sports programming. As for Turner the athlete, her up and down and round and round course is finally run. She will be known forevermore as an Olympic champion.
"I'm still having trouble feeling," she said. "But the main thing I feel is a completeness. A wholeness."