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- February 17, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 6
Amid Chilly Scenes of Winter Olympics, Some Ambitious Americans Aim for Gold in Them Thar Hills
Unlike the Summer Games, there are no scantily clad divers or glistening sprinters. There is none of the running, swimming and throwing. Instead, there are blurs of bright color hurtling down gleaming mountains at speeds a runner can only imagine. There are bobsledders with frost on their goggles, ski jumpers with ice in their veins and skaters who flourish their spins and snoops with surpassing grace. There are lugers and schussers and slalomers—a whole culture of athletes who hare come from all over the world to play out their dreams in a winter landscape.
During the last month, PEOPLE has profiled several of America's top prospects at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Now, as these Games get under way, we look at others, some with the unmistakable glint of gold in their eyes, some with less grandiose dreams, some just very glad to be there at all. For some, it is the first Olympics. For others, it is the last shot.
Let the Games begin.
Duncan Kennedy finds luge is better the second time around
Luger Duncan Kennedy no longer shaves his head, but check out the tattoo on his left arm. It says U.S. LUGE across an American flag spouting red flames. "I came up with the design and thought it was really cool," says Kennedy, 24, the wild man of the World Cup circuit. "I wanted something timeless."
Lately, Kennedy has been approaching timelessness himself. His numbers in the luge—a roller coaster of an event in which sledders shoot feetfirst, like human bullets, down a curving icy course at 75 m.p.h.—have been some of the best in the world.
Kennedy enters these Games on a roll—make that a slide—having taken two golds, two silvers and a bronze in his first live World Cup starts this season. "This time I'm a contender. It puts the race in a new perspective," he says. Growing up in Lake Placid, N.Y., Kennedy got into luging at 12—because it seemed like "the ultimate sleigh ride." And he has held on tight to the kid in him. "I guess I've been kind of an individual," he says. Maybe lugers can be choosers.
For Eva Twardokens, the ski is mightier than the sky
Private pilot Eva Twardokens admits she should be studying for her instrument-rating exam so that she can get her commercial license. Or maybe she should be thinking about marketing the Santa Cruz, Calif. house she remodeled last summer with the intention of selling, "I guess I'm too excited about the Olympics to think about a Cessna 172." says the 5'5", 130-lb. skier. "But right now the only thing on my mind is skiing. I'm into my Olympics psyched-up mode, and I love it."
Twardokens, whose parents defected from Poland at the 1958 World Fencing Championships in Philadelphia, is having a gratifying World Cup season. But the tour, on which she is rated in the top 20, has taken a physical toll on the slalom and giant-slalom specialist. "Competing requires constantly coping with the logistics of travel and trying to keep to a low-fat, high-carbo diet." says Eva. "I never seem to find the right time or place to sit down and let my breath out. Thank God for adrenaline."
Whether it's adrenaline or 10 years of experience on the U.S. Ski Team. Twardokens is one of the squad's best bets for an Albertville medal. Indeed, the 27-year-old skier has surprised herself by doing so well. "At the beginning of the season I didn't know what to expect," she says. "But now I feel I can win if I take it one race at a lime." Her solution? "I have to concentrate," says Twardokens, "on concentrating."
With three very good skates, the U.S. has sweep dreams
Kristi Yamaguchi. Tonya Harding. Nancy Kerrigan. A year ago the three Americans finished 1-2-3 at the World Figure Skating Championships in Munich, the first time one country had swept the women's competition. Now all three are back to form the strongest U.S. women's figure skating team in almost four decades—but so, too, is Midori Ito, the explosive skater from Japan who was favored at the Worlds until she injured herself a day before the finals.
The ultrapolished Yamaguchi, 20, of Fremont, Calif., who added the national championship to her world title last month with a nearly flawless meld of seven triples, is considered America's best prospect for a gold, a feat no American woman skater has accomplished since Dorothy Hamill in 1976. Harding, 21, from Portland, Oreg., lacks Kristi's artistry, but she has something else: the triple axel. She and Ito, 22, are the only women in skating history to have made the challenging 3½-revolution jump in competition. "On any given day," said Yamaguchi, "the champion could be any one of us."
Speed skier C.J. Mueller finds a Rocky Mountain high
It used to he all downhill for C.J. Mueller until 1981, when he discovered the rush that conies from real speed. Dining a holiday in the French Alps, Mueller tried speed skiing and was clocked at 103 m.p.h.—or more than 20 m.p.h. faster than the top speed in a World Cup downhill race. "I thought, 'Yeah, this is what I'm gonna do,' " he says.
A decade later, the 40-year-old construction worker and self-described ski bum from Breckenridge, Colo., whose personal best is now up to 136.6 m.p.h. (2.4 m.p.h. under the world record), is back in the French Alps. But this time he's America's best hope in speed skiing, which is making its debut as an Olympic demonstration sport at Albertville.
The sport is simplicity itself. Skiers, outfitted in aerodynamic suits and helmets, schuss straight down a steep, smooth run and through a 100-meter-long speed trap. The event, in which scores will be recorded but no medals awarded, could become a full-fledged medal sport at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. "As long as I stay healthy and we have good weather, I can win," he says. And he doesn't mind being 40 in a world of 20-year-olds. "The biggest difference," Mueller says, "is when I'm tuning my skis, I'm listening to Frank Sinatra instead of heavy metal." Doobie, doobie...whooosh!
A trucker and a waitress aim to gild their blue collars
Just because they're a couple of working stiffs—he's a trucker and she's a waitress—and just because his name is Rocky doesn't mean that pairs skaters Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval have to have a story with a perfect Hollywood ending. "We're just happy to be going to the Olympics," says Rocky. "Realistically, we're looking at the top 5 or 6—but a miracle could happen."
Make that another miracle. Urbanski and Marval weren't supposed to win the Nationals in Orlando last month either, but they did, alter going into the finals in third place. Urbanski, 31, is married to a skating coach and works as a waitress at Kid Shelleen's in Wilmington, Del. Marval, 26, a bachelor whose real name is Rocco Marvaldi, owns a trucking company in New Egypt, N.J., with his brother. Win or lose, Calla expects to be back waitressing in Kid Shelleen's. As for Rocky: He says he'll keep on trucking.
Without a trace of medal fatigue, Bonnie Blair flies again
Bonnie Blair has her priorities—medals first, then the man, then the chocolate-chip cookies. "My goal is to defend my title in the 500-meter race, win a medal in the 1,000 and see what happens in the 1,500," says the standout speedskater who took a gold in the 500 and a bronze in the 1,000 at the 1988 Games in Calgary. In Albertville she's spending time with her boyfriend, speedskater Dave Cruikshank—and time in the kitchen too. Bonnie, 27, brought her own baking soda and vanilla with her from Champaign, Ill., so she could bake cookies the way she likes them. What, after all, do the French know about chocolate chips?
After Albertville, says Bonnie, "my coaches certainly don't expect me to retire. They've already bought tickets for me to the 1994 Winter Games in Norway." Dave may be seeing less of her, but when you're dating someone as good as Blair, that's the way the chocolate-chip cookie crumbles.
Where there's a Will (and a Walker) there's a way
Bobsledder Handy Will, 27, originally meant to get to the Olympics on skis. But in 1983, as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, he wiped out on the slopes in Montana. "The doctor told me it was basically all over," says Randy, who had two reconstructive knee surgeries. But Will wouldn't quit. Supporting himself doing odd jobs in his hometown of Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the only U.S. bobsled run, he threw himself into his new sport. "I'm not that big," says Will, who at 5'9" and 175 lbs. will steer the four-man sled. "But you can substitute anything for determination."
The chances of the U.S.'s winning a medal improved substantially when Will's sled added Minnesota Viking running back Herschel Walker—all 6', 225 lbs. of him—as a pusher. Walker, 28, of Irving, Texas, who look his first bobsled run only two years ago, promises nothing less than "the fastest push-off times in the world."
Mary Docter skates to a big comeback—in life and on ice
After a disappointing 19th in the 3,000-meter race and an 11th in the 5,000 at the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, speedskater Mary Docter saved her best performance for the postcompetition press conference. "You've been saying that I've been drinking, that I've been taking drugs, that I'm promiscuous, that I'm a loser," she said, then paused to set up the laugh line: "I'm not a loser." Last March, Docter, 30, of Madison, Wis., finally stopped the jokes. Admitting that she was high on marijuana (not prohibited by the International Olympic Committee because it does not consider it a performance-enhancing drug) within an hour of arriving in Calgary, she began a 12-step program at Minnesota's Hazelden Foundation. A recovering substance abuser who used to view the World Cup circuit as an extended party, the onetime also-ran has a chance to be a winner in this, her fourth Winter Olympics. She is not expected to medal, bill Mary thinks she is up to the competition. "I trained hard, I'm technically as good and I have guts," she recently told a reporter. This time, at least, no one is laughing.
PUTTING A SPIN ON THE ACTION
Scott Hamilton has his gold; now he's back with a microphone
Conspicuously absent from Scott Hamilton's memento-filled 24th-floor apartment in downtown Denver is his 1984 Olympic gold medal. It hangs in the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs—a way for Scott to remind himself to move on. Says Hamilton, 33: "I didn't want the light to shine bright at the Olympics and then get dimmer every year after that."
The bright spots these days include exhibition skating and time out with his girlfriend, Karen Plage, 23, as well as his current gig as CBS's primary skating commentator in Albertville. "I've done tons of homework," he says, "but when it happens, it's going to be live calls." Expect no hissing from the diminutive (5'3") dynamo. "You don't want to be overly critical, because everyone has worked extremely hard," says Hamilton. He knows that since 1962 audiences have grown accustomed to commentating pooh-bah Dick Button (on ABC). "But," he says, "I have my own style."
And staying power. Hamilton is now in his sixth season touring with Discover Card Stars on Ice, which he produces and which features such past Olympic standouts as Debi Thomas and Brian Orser. "I've been busting my lower you-know-what, skating more now than I ever did when I was an amateur."
Hamilton is nothing if not adaptable. Raised in Bowling Green, Ohio, by his adoptive parents, Ernie Hamilton, a retired biology professor, and his late wife, Dorothy, a home ec professor, Scott, at 2, was discovered to have Schwachmann's syndrome, a disease that hinders digestion and stunted his growth. In need of exercise, skating became his salvation. Hamilton's big regret is that his mother, who died of cancer when he was 17, never saw him compete in the Olympics. "I really miss her," he says. He remains in touch with his dad, his brother, Steven, 29, and his sister, Susan, 38.
Off-ice, Hamilton savors his moments with Plage, a 5'9" senior communications major at the University of Colorado. He has known the green-eyed Colorado native since 1981 through his friendship with her father. "I always liked to be around when Scott was around, but I didn't know why," says Karen. "Now I've got the man I want." Marriage has been discussed, but for the moment professional concerns take precedence. "All I want to do," says Hamilton, "is have a nice career, work as hard I can" and, he adds—perhaps remembering the vulnerability of being in the rink—"not make anybody angry."
The cold war having thawed, Katarina Witt has warmed up
Can a princess of the proletariat become a queen of capitalist consumption? If she's Katarina Witt, she already has. Du Pont, Danskin and diet Coke have signed the former East German ice star to lucrative endorsement contracts. And CBS is beaming her live across the country as its Olympic skating commentator, complete with Teutonic accent and patrician detachment. On the sidelines this year after winning gold medals at the last two Winter Olympics, Witt, 25, has no regrets at bowing out as a competitor, particularly with her sport in the throes of a controversial transition, with balletic grace, in the view of some critics, giving way to bounding athleticism. "I think I will have more fun as a commentator," she says. "Besides, I can't see myself trying a triple axel—and I don't want to."
Once the darling of her country's Communist regime, Witt was jeered by East German crowds after the government's collapse in 1990. That period was emotionally wrenching for her. "It was very difficult," says Witt, who lives in an apartment in East Berlin. "I didn't see that I did anything wrong. I was winning the medals for myself and, of course, for my country." Soon, though, the political heat diminished, and her star is ascendant once more. "Since the [Berlin] wall is down, all the possibilities have opened up. I'm glad it happened." This year alone, Witt will make more than $1 million for endorsements and skating appearances.
Witt hopes to overcome her natural shyness, but fame is an uneasy crown. Recently an unemployed Westminster, Calif., man, was jailed on felony charges for mailing her some 60 threatening and obscene letters since 1990. "Luckily," she says, "the majority of my fans have been supportive and nice."
Though rumored romances are legion, true love seems nowhere in sight. Witt has fended off both Donald Trump and Italian skiing sensation Alberto Tomba, and though she does admit to a seven-year relationship with German rock musician Ingo Pohiltz, that ended a year ago. Says Witt: "He wanted me to be at home more." Currently, she says, there is no one special. Her ideal: "Someone who is good in his field."
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