Three Americans Battle Obscurity in Sports Where Their High Hopes Invariably Give Way to Low Finishes

updated 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Hockey goalie Jim Craig searching the stands for his father, Dorothy Hamill smiling shyly as the Gold Medal is draped around her neck, Eric Heiden streaking down the ice—for most Americans, these images represent the Winter Olympics. But for every Heiden, Hamill and Craig, there are numerous American athletes who are virtually unknown, competing in unheralded sports. In three such events, the biathlon, women's Nordic skiing and the luge, the United States has never won a medal. The results next month in Sarajevo aren't likely to be any different, but that doesn't dim the dedication of the athletes profiled in these pages.

John Ruger: the rare bird of the biathlon

John Ruger was having a wretched week, and the strain showed around his mouth. A 35-year-old biathlete, he had planned to be the oldest American competing in Sarajevo. Selected as his sport's U.S. Athlete of the Year for 1983, Ruger expected to breeze through this month's Lake Placid trials and nab a spot on his event's six-man delegation. Yet seventh, 12th and 11th place finishes in the first three of four races has severely jeopardized his chances. Paraphrasing Ken Kesey, the Boulder, Colo. athlete said, "In America you're either on the bus or off. Well, the bus for the Olympics is a tough one to miss."

Ruger was on board back in 1980, when he finished a distant 45th in the 20-kilometer event. Since the biathlon became an Olympic event in 1960, it has been dominated by the Russians and Northern Europeans. With a 10-pound rifle strapped to his back, the biathlete follows a specified course on cross-country skis until he arrives at the shooting range. There, saliva often frosted around his mouth, he tries to hit a series of targets and then skis on. Missed targets attach penalty points to his final time. America's best finish ever in any Olympic competition was a sixth at the Sapporo Games in '72.

As a joke, Ruger recently claimed in an official press release that he was competing "to prove that a 35-year-old ex-methadone patient wasn't over the hill." Truth, in this case, is practically as strange as fiction. A bachelor, Ruger is a "fledgling ornithologist" who raises green chilies. The 5'8½", 140-pound Katonah, N.Y. native also trains year-round.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, Ruger firmly believed he would hop aboard the junior-executive commuter line to suburban paradise. After graduation, however, he fell prey to Colorado's physical splendors and became an expert rock climber. At 27, he took up cross-country skiing and shortly thereafter the biathlon. Exactly four years after he first strapped on skis, he was competing in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

Ruger was drawn to biathlon competition because "it helps you know your boundaries and push them." But he says, "The second someone comes along who's more important than competing, I'll stop." Until then he'll stick with it. "There's something unique about being a world-class athlete," he says. After all, he points out, "I'm not an insurance salesman."

Judy Rabinowitz: at a cross-country crossroads

The place is lousy with skis, poles and piles of warm-up suits. Three beds are crammed into one cubicle and open suitcases are scattered everywhere, with racing gear and waxing kits spilling out. Sitting in a room at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, Judy Rabinowitz eyes the disorder and says with a hint of resignation, "It's a typical skier's room."

Since 1979 it's the only kind of room she has known. One of America's premier Nordic skiers, Rabinowitz, 25, has spent the last five years on the U.S. Women's Cross-Country Team, skiing from October to March on the European and North American World Cup circuit. The rest of the year she trains by running, skiing on glaciers in Europe and practicing with skis attached to roller-skate wheels. "I'm really a vagabond," she admits. "Last year I spent one month in the U.S."

The exhausting regimen brings Rabinowitz little attention and less money, though through her team she does receive a stipend from a ski company. Last year's U.S. champion in the five-and 10-kilometers, Rabinowitz tied for 20th place in the 1983 World Cup rankings. Competing in a sport virtually ruled by the Northern Europeans and Russians, Rabinowitz has no illusions about her team's chances at Sarajevo. "We're thinking about the top 20," she says. "Better than that would be wonderful. Compared to the other teams, we don't have the means," she continues. "The Norwegian team travels with a minimum of five coaches." (The U.S. has two.)

The daughter of an associate justice of the Alaska State Supreme Court, Rabinowitz took up cross-country skiing at 16 after more than four years of competitive swimming. The small (5'2") but powerfully built Fairbanks native attended Harvard for two years, but she found that "skiing halfhearted at the collegiate level wasn't what I wanted. I decided I had to make a commitment to one thing."

Although Rabinowitz plans to stay with the team through next year, the Olympics in Calgary, Alberta in 1988 are out for the dark-eyed brunette. "I don't want skiing to consume my life forever," she says softly, looking around the tiny room.

Erika Terwillegar: lying down on the job

Imagine hopping onto a four-foot sled with no brakes and hurtling down a ribbon of rock-hard ice, streaking through a dozen curves at up to 80 miles an hour. Or how about polishing the steel runners of a 48.4-pound sled for an hour every night with sandpaper? Before a race it's a four-hour job—minimum.

Then travel on your sport's European circuit with one car, two vans, two coaches, 13 athletes and 2,600 pounds of luggage, most of it sleds. After eight weeks you've covered 7,000 miles. No corporation or college paid for the trip, your part-time job as a baker did. Envision being the first American ever to win a medal in international competition and having people think your sport is some kind of French delicacy.

Now you have an inkling of what it's like to be Erika Terwillegar, 20, one of America's top women lugers. The 5'10", 140-pound Lake Placid native specializes in a sport with fewer than 100 active American competitors. For the 1984 Olympic team there are 11 women vying for three spots. They have no sponsors and virtually no money. Terwillegar has competed for seven years, always knowing, she says, that "by the time we've had 10 runs, the East Germans have had a thousand." The East Europeans are expected to sweep the Olympics; Terwillegar has a shot at a Top-10 finish.

Yet each fall and winter Terwillegar and her teammates zip into their rubberized Spandex speedsuits and plastic booties. They smear their visors with shampoo—the best defogger in the world, they claim. Then, lying feet first on their sleds, toes pointed, belly up, they steer by using minute shoulder and leg motions. "You're not just a sack of sand going down on a sled," says Erika, who is quite trim for a world-class luger. "You have complete control."

The daughter of a businessman, Terwillegar also excels in rowing, soccer and softball. Though she hopes to attend Brown or Dartmouth next year, she is nevertheless looking toward the Calgary Games in 1988. In other words she's faced with four more years of "win some, luge some."

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