Butte, Mont.: In a checkout line at the Safeway here, she saw herself on the cover of Life. You can set your sundial by it. Every fourth February the Gregorian calendar gains a day, and every fourth February this woman becomes fleetingly world famous. ¬¨¬®‚Äö√†√á But this was not February. This was January 1988, and so no members of the grocery cart-pushing public recognized the cover girl in their midst. Until, that is, her sister Mary peeled a magazine from the rack and began buttonholing shoppers. "That's my sister," said proud Mary. "Do you know who this is?"
Do you know who this is?
Do you know, do you know, do you know? (Nike doesn't.) Do you know me? ("No," replies American Express.)
If she wins two more gold medals at the Winter Games in Lillehammer, this speed skater will become the Most Gilded American Woman in Olympic History, Either Solstice. And yet for three years and 11 months out of each quadrennium, she and her sport may as well be in a witness-protection program. This is one of the reasons that the Winter Olympics were moved up two years: To give their etiolated athletes more exposure. And yet....
February 7, 1994
Out of every 100 people I meet," our hero was saying in December, "90 don't even realize that the next Olympics are in February. They have no clue. They're like, Soooo, you're going to be in Atlanta in '96? Uh, yeah. They'll have a good ice skating rink. Skiing will be real good in Atlanta."
Super G on Stone Mountain? Bobsled in Buckhead? People just don't get it yet-that this speed skater can make history in Lillehammer this month.
Not to worry. They will get it, they always do. After winning a gold and a bronze medal-and setting a still-upright world record in the 500 meters—at Calgary in February '88, she flew to New York City and was startled to be recognized, immediately, by a cop on the street.
After winning two golds in Albertville in '92, she again flew to New York to secure those inalienable rights of American celebrity: Life, Letterman and the pursuit of happiness.
Delta gate agent: "We're so excited to have you on board."
Speed skater (whose sister Suzy is a Delta flight attendant): "Did my sister tell you I was flying?"
Delta gate agent: "No."
Speed skater: "Then how did you know who I was?"
Delta gate agent: "You've been in my living room for the last two weeks."
Speed skater: "Oh."
New York: In the Late Night with David Letterman greenroom after Albertville, actor Ralph Macchio congratulated her. When your fame is as infrequent as a presidential election, such encounters catch you off guard. "The only thing that came into my mind—and it almost came out of my mouth—was, Hey, the Karate Kid!" she recalls. "I was amazed at how tall he was. The Karate Kid, he was really tall."
Then again, she is only 5'4", weighs maybe 130 pounds with those three gold medals around her neck. If she repeats her Albertville performance and wins the 500-and 1,000-meter races in Norway, she will vault past her three countrywomen who have won four gold Olympic medals—swimmer Janet Evans, sprinter Evelyn Ashford and diver Pat McCormick. If she repeats her Albertville performance, she will be the only American woman ever to win five Olympic golds.
"She's strong physically right now, and she's also skating well technically," says her coach, Nick Thometz. "Those combinations make her, I think, the person to beat."
In both events. Again.
In Sarajevo 10 years ago she competed in her first Olympics, finishing eighth in the 500. She was only 19, and it is an appalling reminder of how much time has passed that the host city is today a smoldering ruin. She thinks about this often.
"I've heard that our rink's been bombed out," she says. "The figure skating arena has been bombed out. The site of the opening ceremonies is now being used as a graveyard. The ski slopes and the ski jump area are being used as battlegrounds. When we were there, everyone was so nice. People really went out of their way for you. They had a program where people opened their homes to families of athletes, and my mom and two of my sisters stayed in the home of a family there. And you just wonder: What's happened to them?"
Is it any surprise she should remember the family a decade later? After all, her own enormous Irish-Catholic family, now spread throughout the U.S., remains as tight as a Jim Kelly spiral.
Eleanor, her mother, has lined up housing in Norway for the 30 relatives and dozen or so assorted friends who will attend the Games. Randy Allen, a brother-in-law, has secured tickets. Sister Suzy is bulk-purchasing four dozen "team sweatshirts" for everyone to wear.
The speed skater is the youngest, by seven years, of six children raised in Champaign, Ill. As proud as they are of their little sister, one thing bothers the five older siblings. "It's that they're always referred to in articles as siblings," says the baby of the family. "I got a fax in Europe recently that was signed, 'From one of your siblings.' They always make comments like that. They get their digs at me, just to keep me on the level."
As a matter of fact the city of Champaign wanted to rename the busy street that runs in front of Centennial High School for its most famous alumna, its Olympic champion. But the champion's mother put the kibosh on it. Mom was concerned that too many people would have to change their addresses, so the city instead named a brand-new street for its Olympic champion. That was thoughtful of Mom. "Well," sighs the Olympic champion, "Mom's in real estate."
Byron wrote, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." That's what happens to Olympic heroes and heroines. That is what always happens to her, anyway. "You're competing over there," she says, referring to the French Alps or Scandinavia or the former Yugoslavia, "and you have no idea what people are seeing on TV over here. And then...."
Then it hits you, suddenly, like Don Johnson's bussing you as you leave the medals stand in Albertville. You return to the U.S. to brief white-hot fame. In the weeks after the last Olympics, the post office delivered a letter to her childhood home in Champaign. The envelope bore only her name and the words OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST. There was a smudged, illegible cancellation, canceling nothing. "There was no stamp" explains the letter's recipient. "There was a cancellation, so you know it went through the mails, but there was no stamp. No address, no stamp, and it got to my house."
You want fame? She is on a stamp, for Pete's sake, one issued incongruously by the island of St. Vincent in the West Indies. It all makes her more than a little uncomfortable. "Before they'll put you on a stamp in the United States," she says, "you have to be dead for a certain number of years."
Does St. Vincent know something that she doesn't?
Lord knows, it can sometimes seem as if she's dead between Olympics, so she finds herself having to get used to celebrity again. She sat with her mouth agape during a state dinner at the White House after the '88 Games. Vice-President George Bush approached her afterward and said, "I saw you kind of staring around the room during dinner. Sometimes, I can't believe I'm here, either."
"Sometimes I can't believe I'm here," confirms the speed skater today. "That basically tells it all."
Alighting from her navy Jeep Cherokee, she walks unnoticed into a Ground Round restaurant near the new U.S. speed skating training center in suburban Milwaukee. Quaffing water as if she were operated by hydraulics ("I have drug testing after lunch and I want to be able to go," she says), she considers the '94 Winter Olympics and the athletic career that will soon be coming to its gold-capped conclusion.
"There's going to be a point where I'm not going to be able to go any faster," she says. "I still might be the best, but if I can't accomplish many more things, then it's probably time to move on."
One table over, an eavesdropper's neck corkscrews like rotini pasta when this small woman mentions the two Olympic medals she keeps in a bank in Champaign and the two others that she keeps in a bank in Milwaukee (where she now lives). The eavesdropper's feet face north, his torso west, his eyes turned south in a painful attempt to eyeball the speaker.
"Years ago I would have never thought all this would have happened," the speed skater says laughing at the eavesdropper's contortions. "Yeah, I always loved to skate. I always loved to go to the rink, to go to meets. But I never would have dreamt it would result in...in dinner at the White House."
That may tell it all: Life after the Olympics is dinner at the White House. Life the rest of the time is lunch at The Ground Round. She takes another bite of her French Dip.
It sounds apocryphal, the story of her birth. The tale has been told again and again, but it surely can't be true. Her dad, Charlie, who had fathered four speed skaters, was timing a meet in Yonkers, N.Y., on March 18, 1963, when his wife gave birth. The public-address announcer told the crowd that was attending the meet, "Looks like Charlie's family has just added another skater." That baby became the greatest U.S. woman speed skater who ever lived.
It sounds made up. "I know," laughs the greatest U.S. woman speed skater who ever lived. "But it's true." Charlie, a retired civil engineer, died on Christmas Day 1989. Two days before Christmas he had watched his youngest daughter skate. Forget the fame for a moment. All that daughter ever really wanted out of skating, she once said, was to create the wind around her. All that daughter ever wanted out of skating was to skate.
Recently in training I was paired with some kid in the 500," she says. "A guy. He was probably in high school. Sometimes I'll pick out a guy whose time is similar to mine and race him. Anyway, I beat this guy. and I figured he was probably embarrassed because he was beaten by a girl, and his friends were going to give him a hard time, and...."
She skated over to console the young man, to let him know that there was really no reason to be ashamed, that the girl who had just beaten him was in fact....
"Hey," said the kid, smiling broadly, before she had a chance to say any of this. "I just got beat by the fastest woman in the world!"
The fastest woman in the world.
It is time. Her name will be writ large once again, in letters big and bold, like those left behind by a skywriter. Perhaps this time the letters won't dissolve into the ether in a matter of moments. Perhaps this time her name will remain forever in the sky, in letters big and bold, like the letters that begin each section of this story.
It is time.
U.S. women with three or more gold medals
4 Evelyn Ashford
1984 (2) 1988 (1) 1992 (1)
4 Janet Evans
1988 (3) 1992 (1)
4 Pat McCormick
1952 (2) 1956 (2)
3 Melissa Belote
3 Bonnie Blair
1988 (1) 1992 (2)
3 Ethelda Bleibtrey
3 Valerie Brisco-Hooks
3 Tracy Caulkins
3 Nicole Haislett
3 Nancy Hogshead
3 Lida Howell
3 Florence Griffith Joyner
3 Jackie Joyner-Kersee
1988 (2) 1992 (1)
3 Helene Madison
3 Mary T. Meagher
3 Debbie Meyer
3 Sandra Neilson
3 Martha Norelius
1924 (1) 1928 (2)
3 Wilma Rudolph
3 Carrie Steinseifer
3 Sharon Stouder
3 Wyomia Tyus
1964 (1) 1968 (2)
3 Chris Von Saltza