In Sarajevo, the Most Eloquent Quest Wasn't for Gold

updated 02/27/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1984 01:00AM

The Olympics are over now. The snowbound hills around Sarajevo, Yugoslavia are no longer alive with the sound of cheering. The wolf that was these Winter Games' symbol has regained the solitude in which it clings to survival; the medalists have taken their rewards and gone home. Gone too are the men and women who came less with an expectation of winning than to celebrate their sport and the moment. For them, the inner game is what counts—the thrill of extending oneself to one's limits and achieving a private, fleeting sense of perfection. Before the Games were concluded, PEOPLE sought out four of these athletes to reflect on pleasures that may never be converted to silver or gold.

Don Nielsen: Biathlon's Zen warrior

Prone in the snow, sighting down the barrel of his .22 rifle at a silver-dollar-size target 50 meters away, Don Nielsen isn't thinking about how he's going to look on Wide World of Sports. Matter of fact, he isn't thinking at all. "You shouldn't think while shooting," he says, "just flow to the subconscious and go with it." Easier said than done. In Nielsen's supremely esoteric event, the biathlon, an athlete can't go with the flow until he's skied to the edge of exhaustion to get to his targets.

A classics major at Dartmouth, where he graduated magna cum laude, Nielsen began as an Alpine skier, switched to cross-country and tried his first biathlon in 1978. He was enchanted by its demanding simplicity. "You do it without gizmos and chair lifts and being locked in plastic on the snow," he says. "You're a biped moving swiftly and gracefully. It's like writing poems with your legs."

The biathlon evolved in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, where its wedded skills of skiing and shooting were required of both hunters and soldiers. In America it enjoys such obscurity that pursuing its trying standards of speed and precision may seem a kind of sporting analogy to the lofty notion of art for art's sake. Of all the groups of U.S. athletes who traveled to Sarajevo, "our team," says Nielsen, "succumbed the least to the infatuation with medals." Just as well, since no American finished better than 20th in either the 10-or 20-kilometer biathlon.

Undistracted by dreams of improbable glory, Nielsen, 32, a native New Englander now living in Boulder, Colo., was able to concentrate on the daunting mental and physical demands of his sport. The test of a biathlete's marksmanship—administered only after a grueling run on slim Nordic skis—consists of locating one's "zero," achieving a precise concentric alignment of the rifle's two circular sights and the bull's-eye. The way Nielsen describes it, the event is a lot like pumping iron to exhaustion, then settling down to perform microsurgery. The slightest variations of wind, light and temperature need to be compensated for while sighting the target. The shooter adjusts his sight by tiny "clicks" on a knob in order to reestablish his zero. For instance, says Nielsen, "I zero naturally at 12 o'clock, top of the bull's-eye. I know if I've had a sandwich, that will force me to move the knob a few clicks. I also know that at a medium pulse of 140 my zero moves down five clicks." When his pulse rate slows to 120, says Nielsen, his heart is pumping more blood with each stroke, so he deliberately shoots between pulse beats to reduce the infinitesimal jarring. "After 10 years of training twice a day, I know myself," he says.

To support himself over the past decade, Nielsen has taught skiing and high school English from Boulder to the Canadian Yukon. He has lived "in an attic with the smoked hams" in South Strafford, Vt., getting by on $2,500 a year by maple sugaring, selling firewood, making cider. For him, the compensations are adequate. During a practice run high above Sarajevo, Nielsen glided effortlessly along a white powdery trail snaking through the woods. Heavy snow fell straight and silent as he paused at the crest of a hill. "The anode and cathode of our lives," he reflected, "is the starting gate and the finish line. I'll miss all that adrenalized excitement, the clear perception of everything you do in that great moment of your sport. All races are pretty much the same, but this time I'm going to get into the starting gate a little early so I'll have time to absorb the specialness of being in that starting gate of these Olympics. In biathlon events you're not thinking of the hurt. You're thinking about the performance, about the breath and the heart."

Tiffany Chin: Sweet 16 but a steely competitor

Tiny, precious, delicate, beautiful—yes, she's all of these. But never imagine that a Tiffany Chin is to figure skating what a glass jaw is to boxing. The sylphlike Los Angeles teenager (all 4'8" and 90 pounds of her) has emerged from Sarajevo as a world-class figure skater, a ranking that is never bestowed on the fragile.

A Catholic prep-school sophomore, Chin hides a powerful drive behind her wide-eyed ingenue gaze. At 16, she can be as cool as an ice rink while facing the critical scrutiny of international judges, and she seems increasingly aware of her stature. "I'm not trying to boast or anything," Tiffany whispers shyly, "but some people say I have a nice presence on the ice. You can tell which skaters really feel what they're doing and which ones don't. There's an oomph in reaching out to the audience to express yourself through the music and skating."

Up close, it's more a series of whooshes than an audible oomph, as Tiffany glides through spins and critical triple jumps, lost, it seems, in a graceful but rigorously athletic marriage of music and maneuvers. While competing, she is virtually blind to her audience and deaf to the sound of her blades slicing the ice. "You have to block things out," she says, "and achieve a certain concentration."

Chin's parents have attempted a delicate balancing act, too—urging on their daughter a full academic load of courses squeezed into half days so Tiffany can remember, as her mother, Marjorie, says, "that there's another world out there." Thus far Tiffany has managed to make the best of both worlds, maintaining a B+ to A average in school while moving up rapidly in the national and international rankings. But shuttling between classes and skating rinks has left little time for boys or close pals at school. "My friends were all intrigued by my going to the Olympics," says Chin, "but they don't really know me as I am."

One criticism of Tiffany, if that's the word, has been that she lacks the killer instinct of more seasoned competitors like Rosalynn Sumners or Elaine Zayak. Yet Chin is unconcerned. "The other girls don't intimidate me," she declares. "I can be a big threat to them and their reputations. They have more to lose. I'm not dumb. I know what's going on. I see who's doing what and what I'm capable of. So much of skating is mental. If you believe in yourself, and believe that you can do it, you usually can."

High-flying Jon Denney: Jumping for joy

When Jon Denney said the most thrilling sensation of the Olympics would be his long-awaited flight over Sarajevo, he wasn't looking forward to his journey home via Pan Am. It was the singular rush of the 90-meter ski jump that promised him the greatest excitement. "I've never done anything else like jumping," he said with a smile. "You get to a point where you just can't quit."

The youngest of three ski-jumping brothers from Duluth, Minn., Denney, 23, has been jumping for joy—and accepting the risks—practically since he learned how to walk. Unlike lugers, bobsledders, downhillers and skaters, the jumper runs the uniquely harrowing risk of losing control high above terra firma. Denney's worst enemies are shifts in the wind or an icy runway that could, at the instant of lift-off, send him out of control. And there are other dangers once he is airborne. A jump may be lengthened by critical centimeters, Denney explains, if a jumper lifts his ski tips while coming in for a landing. But if he lifts them too high, the wind may flip him over in midair. "That ruins a lot of jumpers," he says. "You can ski again, but you're not going to be as tough. I've never flipped, but it's the thing that terrifies me the most. You stand on top of a hill and see two guys in front of you go right over, and you're next."

But the best jumps make the dangers worthwhile. The most exhilarating moments come in mid-flight, says Denney, as muffled wind rushes through the ear holes of a skier's helmet. "You can feel your body leaving the ground below," he says. "You're still climbing and can see the flat land coming up. That's when you say to yourself, 'I've got a good one now.' "

Denney's first lift-off came as a toddler when his father, a retired U.S. Steel accountant, started him going over backyard bumps no higher than a Sunday paper covered with snow. At 4, he was up to 10-meter jumps, and he made his first 70-meter leap at 11.

When he finishes his studies in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota-Duluth this summer, Denney is considering going after a pilot's license. Flight, after all these years, is his element. "I have a dream sometimes," he says. "I'm going off a jump and I go out of control. I catch some wind and just get lifted 100 feet in the air. It feels like stepping out of a 50-story building with skis on. I'm a half mile through the air and just going forever. It's a scary dream and I'm feeling, 'Oohhh, boy, now this is interesting. How am I gonna land?' And I never do."

Marc Behrend's goal: Put the Olympics behind him

In the end, they were undone by an act that was simply too hard to follow. For the 20 members of this year's U.S. Olympic hockey team, the gold medal won so miraculously four years ago hung like an albatross around their necks. No one felt the pressure more than goalie Marc Behrend, 23.

"In the early part of the Team USA season," he said after the 5-2 loss to Czechoslovakia that effectively eliminated the U.S. from a chance at a medal, "I found myself thinking about people remembering Jim Craig and that I had to perform really well. And because of that, I didn't. The pressure on us really showed. We just weren't ourselves in Sarajevo."

But Behrend won't have much time to brood. This week the former University of Wisconsin star will be joining the National Hockey League's Winnipeg Jets, placing himself once again in the path of rock-hard rubber discs traveling at speeds of up to 120 mph. The pressure is constant and excruciating. "My gear feels like a 50-pound wet suit," he says, "and the material never breathes. I never take my eye off the puck except after a whistle. I'm as drained as any player going up and down the ice all night long."

On a good night, though, Behrend can turn a game into a 60-minute high—flushed behind his leather-and-fiberglass armor and form-fitting mask with a feeling of invincibility. "You can feel so hot some nights that absolutely no one can score on you," he says. "I've seen the same shots a hundred million times, but they always look different. You have to get to a point where you can anticipate the flow and the plays. You have to get so relaxed that it's all pure reflex, total reaction and instinct."

To make sure his extraordinary reflexes stay honed, Behrend psychs himself before each test of his skills by replaying previous games in his mind. "I sit there and go over teams coming down the ice on me play after play," he says. He visualizes kick saves, stick saves, glove saves, whatever it takes to win. "Always the saves," he says with a grin. "I only rerun the saves, never the goals."

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