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Original Issue

A Pair Of Great Skates

Sarah and Mary Docter, best all-around U.S. speed skaters, are contrary sisters: Mary likes to dance, Sarah has to win

Yes, Eric and Beth Heiden have hung up their skates, but that doesn't leave the U.S. in a bind for speed skaters capable of bringing in the next harvest of medals. In the Midwest, the hotbed of speed skating (if hotbed is the right term), where cities such as Madison, Wis., the Heidens' hometown, are hard by lakes that freeze over on cue at Christmas, it has become a tradition for each successive age group to move up to the world-class ranks and replace yesterday's heroes.

And here comes the latest pair of tough kids out of Madison, sisters named Mary and Sarah Docter. Mary is 21, 5'6", 130 pounds and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin; Sarah is 17, 5'7", 125 pounds and a senior at James Madison Memorial High. Both started skating at an early age on Madison's Lake Mendota, literally in their backyard, and now they are America's best all-around women speed skaters. (All-around women compete in two sprints, the 500 and 1,000 meters, and in two distance events, the 1,500 and 3,000 meters.) They're also the U.S.'s best hopes, male or female, for becoming prolific winners in international competition—including the '84 Olympics. (Last weekend at the women's world championships in Inzell, West Germany, Sarah finished a disappointing fifth overall, Mary was 12th.)

Mary is technically the better skater; Sarah is more talented and far more competitive. As a consequence, Sarah, though younger, is the No. 1 all-around woman in the country; Mary is No. 2. They finished first and second in the last two women's national team trials. They both laugh a lot and have absolutely dazzling teeth, but when they get down to racing, they hardly speak to each other.

At last year's worlds in Quebec City, Sarah was the surprise of the two-day meet, winning three bronze medals, for finishing third in the 1,000, and the 3,000 and for placing third overall, behind the Soviet Union's Natalia Petruseva and East Germany's Karin Enke, both Olympic gold medalists in 1980.

Mary started off the 1981 world championships with an atrocious 500 meters, placing 24th in a field of 30, and finished 12th overall. Still, Sarah never spoke a word of comfort—in fact, not a word at all—to her sister during the competition. And when Sarah stood on the podium to receive her bronze for the all-around, Mary watched from the stands, tears running down her cheeks. They were not tears of joy for her sister's triumphs.

"At a competition we totally avoid each other, or we would just snap at each other all the time," says Sarah. "Mary is just another competitor then. That's pretty cold, but I have to look at it that way. I don't want to ride in a car with her. I don't want to go jogging with her."

"When we get off the ice," says Mary, "it's almost harder to be friends with each other than with other competitors. It's hard for me to congratulate her."

"If I borrow her sharpening stone," says Sarah, "she gets mad."

"If she borrows something and then doesn't put it back, I get mad," snaps Mary.

Because of this rivalry between the siblings, the U.S. team coaches, Bob Corby and Peter Mueller, the Olympic 1,000-meter champion in 1976, usually avoid putting the Docters on the starting line together. But one day last December, in a time trial over 3,000 meters, it happened, almost by oversight. (The 3,000 is the only distance at which Mary can still beat Sarah—sometimes. At the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, she took a respectable sixth place in the event; Sarah finished 10th.) It was a typically cold and windy morning at the West Allis, Wis. rink, which has the only international-size (400 meter) oval now in operation in the U.S.; the one at Lake Placid isn't being used. The open rink sits beside a freeway, exposed to chilling north winds and dulled by dirt that blows in from Milwaukee.

As they approached the starting line, Mary stepped aside to pull off her sweat shirt, taking her time. Then Sarah took off her top, making Mary wait. Finally lined up, Sarah said, "O.K., Mary, let's take it easy and stay even." Mary nodded. Then they took off at a brutal pace and made it, as Sarah later said, "the toughest race we both had this year." The best U.S. men were clocked at around five minutes flat in their 3,000-meter trials that day; Mary finished in 5:03, Sarah in 5:05. "A little bit of a grudge match there, Mary?" Sarah asked. Mary didn't laugh. She was trying to hold on to the one event in which she can still claim superiority, and remembers painfully the only other time she had been paired with Sarah in a race of any note, the 1,000 meters at their first world championships in 1979 in The Hague. "I didn't like it," Mary recalls. "I bombed out. I shouldn't have let it bother me, but I feel threatened by her."

"I think Mary gets a lot more nervous when we're paired than I do," says Sarah, "because she sees me as her little sister. When I got on the line in The Hague, I never thought of her as my sister, just as someone I had to beat."

Obviously, the Docters have very different approaches to skating. Mary has sometimes been known to miss a workout because of a party; Sarah has been known to miss a banquet after an international competition because she was exhausted from racing. "I always save a little energy," says Mary. "I like to dance."

"I love winning," Sarah says, "and Mary wants to have a good time. She doesn't have to win to be happy. I have to, to be happy."

To Sarah three things are uppermost: skating, cycling and school. She's one of the best bicycle road racers in the country, spending more than two months each summer competing in about four races a week. "It's the most grueling thing I do," Sarah says. Last summer she won the U.S. trials for the cycling world championships held in Czechoslovakia, but gave up her place on the American team to attend a skating camp in Colorado Springs.

Then there's school. Sarah cannot accept anything but straight A's. At times, she has confided to Mary, she wakes up at night wondering whether she's wasting her time sleeping when she could be up studying.

"There's no one in the family like Sarah," says Betsy Docter, the girls' mother. "She's driven to excel."

Sarah's competitive juices started to flow very early. When the children were young, the Docters lived on the shore of Lake Mendota. Tom Docter, a lawyer who has since also become the owner-manager of a motel, and Betsy had five children in less than six years. It's a close-knit family; whatever one young Docter did, the others also had to do. They all started skating together—Sarah at the tender age of 18 months, Mary at four years. Mary and Sarah showed more promise than the other Docter children, so when they were eight and five, respectively, Tom set up a small oval track on the lake in back of the house for the local speed-skating club. The Heidens' grandparents lived only a couple of houses away, and sometimes Eric and Beth, then 11 and 10, would come over to skate with the Docters.

On weekends there would be pack-style races all over Wisconsin and in neighboring states. Mary and Sarah did well in these mass-start events, which help a skater develop quick feet and sharp elbows. Mary won the midget-class pack-style nationals at 11; Sarah won the pack-style national titles in three different classes between 9 and 13. "I was good," admits Mary, "but Sarah was outstanding. She broke just about all of my age-group records. Everyone knew Sarah Docter." In 1977 Sarah won all four races—at 500, 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000 meters—in the U.S. trials for the pack-style indoor world championships in Birmingham, England. Then in Birmingham, against an international field of all ages, she won the 1,500 and 3,000.

In 1973 Sarah and Mary began to train with Dianne Holum, then the U.S. national team coach who won four Olympic medals in 1968 and 1972. The Docter sisters chose her because she also coached the Heidens.

While Mary, like most girls in Madison, had a crush on Eric, Sarah worshiped Beth. "I was her little shadow," says Sarah, "she was my idol. She did all the things I wanted to do." In 1977 the Docters began to go into metric-style racing, the way Olympic events are held. Now Sarah was out to beat Beth, and Beth grew testy. "We had to pretend to be friendly," says Sarah. Sarah was in Beth's shadow until Beth retired after a disappointing 1980 Olympics—she won only a bronze, in the 3,000, while Eric got those five golds.

"Now that Beth is gone," says Sarah, "it is more relaxing to me. It's sort of fun to be top dog. All the young ones look up to me."

"It's really hard to have a sister like Sarah," says Mary, "because she's perfect. She always trains hard. She always does her homework. She never overeats. I don't think I'm jealous, but I'm envious. I could be like her if I really wanted to, but I just don't work at it.

"Sometimes I ask myself, 'Why am I in this damn sport, why do I put so much time into it if I don't want to win?' Other people tell me, if that fire is gone, that fire that makes you go, go, go, you should quit.' I know that fire isn't there, but I'm probably the second-best skater in the U.S. You can't complain about that. And in the back of my mind I still want to get better—not beat Sarah, just get better. There has never been anyone that I really wanted to beat."

Corby claims that Sarah's only shortcoming is that she won't rest. During the skaters' first three months of training each season, in October, November and December, they skate 600 to 700 miles a month, abusing their legs to the degree that tiny muscle tears appear. In January, when the serious racing season starts, skaters should cut down on distance work and do only short sprints, resting a good deal so that their muscles can regain their tone.

But Sarah takes to the ice even on rest days, and once out there she usually skates more laps than anybody else, even the men. When she is off the ice doing her running workouts, she outdoes all the women and most of the men, too. Sarah even beats her latest boyfriend, Werner Jäger, a 22-year-old speed skater from Innsbruck, Austria. Last December when Jäger spent a few weeks in West Allis, he and Sarah frequently went on five-minute runs and Sarah outsprinted him every time. "I think he's a chauvinistic type of person," says Sarah. "I am a better runner, and I outsprint him just to bother him. It really makes him so mad."

Sarah suddenly becomes pensive. "I am so competitive, even when I train," she says, "that I don't want to be in the same sport with someone I love." Does she love Werner? "Oh, no, no!" she protests. "I don't love him. I meant Mary."

Lest it be thought that Mary has all the fun and Sarah does all the hard work, it should be said that when it comes to having a good time, Sarah runs a close second to her sister. Even when she is tired from racing, a glass of wine can get her to dance up a storm. Still, first prize in the après skate world clearly goes to Mary. The famous Olympic Wet T Shirt Contest clinched the title for her.

It was not exactly an Olympic event, though it happened in Lake Placid. Mary and some other skaters—Craig Kressler, Jim Chapin and Mike Woods—were enjoying themselves at a disco called GAGS in nearby Saranac Lake. They found out that the special event of the evening was a wet T shirt contest with a first prize of $250. The three men urged Mary to enter, but she demurred. Nonetheless, when the contestants were announced, Mary heard her name. Her escorts had signed her up.

"Well, I'd had enough beer to think, hey, this is for $250, I might as well try," Mary says. "But when I looked at my competition, I wanted to get out. They were all older and, well, gross. We had to put on these tiny white T shirts, and someone poured two pitchers of ice-cold water over me. I was freezing. Then we had to dance, and those who got the most cheers advanced to the semis and the finals."

Meanwhile, Mary's friends had done some campaigning for her, informing patrons of the bar that they were watching a deserving Olympic speed skater. Mary got the loudest applause in each round.

"Once the competition started," she says, "I really wanted to win, and in the end I did. I got $250 in cash [which did not endanger her amateur status—except as a wet T shirt competitor], and I blew it all the next day on a knapsack, a pair of pants and a real nice sweater. It was such fun spending it all."

Her feat might never have become known had it not been for a photographer who happened to drop in at GAGS. That's why when someone asks, "How did you do at the Olympics?" Mary answers, "I made the papers."


Intense sibling rivalry usually keeps Mary (left) and Sarah from even standing next to each other at the starting line of a race.


Tom and Betsy Docter pose with Sarah and Mary, the most proficient of five skating kids.


Mary suits up for her most successful 1980 Olympic event, the wet T-shirt competition.