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There Will Be No Golden Harvest

Triumphant at Lake Placid, the U.S. speed skating team is divided and heading for disappointment in '84

It was a dreary scene. Ever since the U.S. speed skating team—rather, the 31 members of the team who had chosen to follow Coach Dianne Holum—had arrived in Trondheim, Norway on Oct. 17, it had rained or snowed every day for 11 days. It was raining now—a cold autumn downpour that chilled the skaters to the marrow as they did laps on the 400-meter outdoor rink. Their blades made long scythe-like slashes in the film of rainwater covering the ice, slashes that disappeared an instant after the skaters had passed. The skaters were squinting in the rain, listening to the slickered Holum shout out their splits. "Thirty-eight point six," she called to one. "Thirty-nine, four," Mike Crowe, Holum's assistant, yelled to another. One of the skaters fell on a turn and got up cursing, drenched. The rain continued to come down through the two-hour workout. Afterward, cold and tired, the skaters faced the half-mile walk back to the Hotel Transit-ten in the wet dark.

There was no change in the weather during the night, and the next day, when the speed skaters took their morning jog, they ran in a steady drizzle. They were at the halfway point of their 22-day European training stint, the faraway location of which was made necessary when officials of the Olympic authority in Lake Placid, N.Y. failed in their efforts to open the Olympic oval for the U.S. team on the agreed-upon date, Oct. 16. As each of the 22 days passed, it was meticulously crossed off the workout calendar posted on Holum's hotel room door. To make matters worse, the trip was costing each of these 31 Olympic hopefuls some $1,600. The mood? "I hate the food, hate the weather; we're stuck in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, it's expensive and the ice sucks," summed up one skater. "What's to complain about?"

That same day 15 other members of the U.S. speed skating team were training in Inzell, West Germany, sharing the 400-meter oval there with skaters from several other countries. The sky was bright blue, the foliage was red, and colorful flowers grew from the balconies of the picturesque Bavarian houses in the village. Some of the U.S. skaters had been in Inzell since Sept. 29, and it had been a good fall—fine weather and productive workouts. Most of the skaters were staying in guest rooms above a local travel agent's garage, living on approximately $15 a day, feeding themselves on such staples as fried sausages and spaghetti. Twice a day the Americans got out on the ice, but as they were reeling off as many as 700 400-meter laps per week, there was no one calling out their splits, studying their technique, recording them on videotape. Said Heinz Mayerb√ºchler, the caretaker of the rink at Inzell, "We have 13 teams training here this fall: the Canadians, French, Scots, Italians, Dutch, Austrians, Swedes, Norwegians, Romanians, South Koreans, Poles, Finns and, of course, Americans. The U.S. group is the first I've seen come here without a coach."

Three-and-a-half months before the Olympics, virtually all the top male speed skaters in America were going it alone. The mood? Defiant and resentful. "In Norway are all the skaters who were dissatisfied that they did not make the world team last January," said Nick Thometz, 20, the best sprinter on the U.S. team and one of those training in Inzell. "So they hollered for a new coach and a new program. They were a majority, but it's odd that the best people had no say."

"We've got a funny situation in America," added 1976 Olympic 1,000-meter gold medalist Peter Mueller, a former U.S. coach who's now trying an on-ice comeback. "Our coach, Bob Corby, is back in Madison [Wis.], and we're here in Inzell by ourselves. There's a lot of friction on the U.S. team."

That's putting it mildly. Less than four years after its glorious showing in Lake Placid, the American speed skating program has fallen on its keister. The ruling body in the sport, the United States International Speedskating Association (USISA), has been struck by internal dissension over its coaching selections, and hamstrung by a lack of money, the result of incompetent fund raising. Depending on whom you ask, young talent either isn't there—or it's there and not being developed. One thing everyone agrees on: There are no up-and-coming Eric Heidens on the U.S. team; he, remember, won an unprecedented five individual gold medals in the 1980 Olympics. Nor, probably, is there a Leah Poulos-Mueller, Peter's wife, who in 1980 won two silvers. There may not even be a Beth Heiden, who took home a bronze from Lake Placid. Indeed, the U.S. skaters even stand a chance of coming up empty at the Games in Sarajevo. That hasn't happened to American speed skaters since 1956. Says Holum, a four-time Olympic medalist herself, "Nobody knows about us; nobody cares. I thought, after Eric, the sport would start to grow more in the U.S. But there's more to it, I guess, than having a champion."

American speed skating has long been something of a mystery. Though relatively few U.S. athletes participate in it—250 by latest count—speed skating has provided the U.S. with more Winter Olympic medals, 38, than any other sport. (Mind you, with five men's events ranging from 500 meters to 10,000 meters, and four women's events from 500 to 3,000, there are more medals at stake in speed skating than in other winter sports.) In fact, the first medal awarded in the Winter Olympics went to a U.S. speed skater, Charles Jewtraw, who won the 500 in the 1924 Games in Chamonix, France. That seemed to set a trend.

U.S. speed skating, drawing its stars almost entirely from the Midwest, thrived thereafter without fanfare, without financial support and without facilities. Until the Lake Placid oval opened in 1978, the only 400-meter speed skating rink in the U.S. was in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. Holland, by contrast, has 10 such rinks. Future gold medalists like Holum and Anne Henning grew up skating on flooded football fields in suburban towns, which made U.S. speed skaters seem the very embodiment of the Olympic ideal, showing once every four years that hard work, sacrifice and talent could overcome just about anything.

Which is exactly what will have to happen if any of the U.S. skaters is to come home from Sarajevo with a medal. Before overcoming the powerful Soviets, East Germans, Dutch, Swedes and Norwegians, American speed skaters must first contend with some rather fierce infighting and backbiting within their own organization. "These kids don't excel because of USISA but in spite of it," says Corby, a former U.S. co-coach, who, along with Mueller, quit that post during last winter's World Sprint Championships. "I tell you, dealing with those guys is like dealing with a bunch of Cub Scouts. Except the Cub Scouts would be a lot more organized. What they're doing to the sport is criminal."

That's one opinion, not without support. The countering one, as expressed by a couple of "those guys"—USISA President George Howie and board member Gene Sandvig—is that the coaching team of Corby and Mueller was not successful in developing the current crop of young U.S. skaters, particularly the girls; that the majority of team members were disenchanted; and that Corby and Mueller had resigned of their own volition. Says Howie, "For the last year Corby and Mueller and Sandvig couldn't get along. When you're working for somebody, you can bend a little and try to work things out or you can quit."

Corby, 33, was hired in June 1980 to replace Holum, who resigned after five years as the U.S. co-coach, shortly before her daughter, Kirstin, was born. The top U.S. skaters at Lake Placid—the Heidens and the Muellers—had all moved on to other things, so the group Corby was working with was young and inexperienced. In the fall of '80 the team decided to train in the U.S. rather than in Europe and, because of refrigeration malfunctions, didn't skate regularly on the West Allis rink until Thanksgiving weekend. "That's like telling John McEnroe that he can only use his racket four months a year," says Corby. "The Russians skate every month except July and August. We could never catch up. So that was our last autumn in the U.S."

In 1981 Mueller, 29, who had spent the 1980-81 season guiding the Austrian national team, was hired to co-coach the U.S. team with Corby. The two of them had similar philosophies, worked closely and for the next two years sparred with increasing regularity with the USISA board over policy decisions. Among the issues debated were where to go in Europe—and when—for training and competition, and how to allocate funds for training camps and expenses. Another bone of contention was the size of the national team. Corby and Mueller wanted to cut back the number of skaters from the unwieldy 55 that qualify now. However, the two most powerful members of the board, Sandvig, who is program and development committee chairman, and Secretary William Cushman, opposed the change. Complicating this dispute was the fact that both Sandvig and Cushman were in conflict-of-interest situations, since Sandvig's 22-year-old daughter, Susan, and Cushman's son, Tom, 19, were both on the national team. "Their kids were always borderline, always around place 25 or 28," says Mueller. "The fathers start making rules to benefit these two kids so they could go to Europe and to training camp. It's a big farce. We have a handful of skaters who are really good and then there is a big drop-off. Since the association has no money to begin with, we just cut everything really thin."

In defense of the two board members, it should be pointed out that both Holum and Corby consider Tom Cushman to be one of the most promising young skaters on the team. Sandvig denies the charges of nepotism. "We think we should take care of the masses rather than a select group," he says. "Look what happened in 1980. All the skaters that did win medals quit the sport. You've got to be developing young skaters so you'll have someone coming up the line."

Ideally, the solution is to have an elite traveling team of perhaps 20 members, and a separate development team with its own coach. That's the system used in other leading speed skating countries. That of course requires money, and USISA is even shorter on money than it is on harmony. It lost its only corporate sponsor after the 1980 Olympics and now operates on an annual budget of some $200,000, 90% of which is provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee. "What George Howie has done in terms of fund raising has been done so...well, let's just say that he didn't have a chance of succeeding," Corby says. "He can't even get his organization together to ask Heiden to contribute."

Incredible but true, Heiden, who's now a pre-med student at Stanford, has never been directly approached by Howie about fund raising for the speed skating team. The only time Heiden was asked for help was when a skater, 24-year-old Mike Plant, requested it. Heiden responded by helping to persuade Atari Inc. to contribute to the training expenses of a handful of the top skaters, a commitment of some $225,000 over three years. Asked why he has not personally appealed to Heiden for help, Sandvig replies, "Why blame us? I think that he has some responsibility, too. Why can't he come forward and offer to help? He knows our situation."

If the purpose of keeping 55 skaters on the national team was to help develop young talent, the plan failed. On the ice, the only U.S. skaters who showed improvement on the international level under Mueller and Corby were the men sprinters. Thometz went from sixth place overall in the 1982 World Sprint Championships to fourth in 1983 and stands a chance to come away with a medal in the 500 or 1,000 at Sarajevo. Erik Henriksen, 24, the self-described Muhammad Ali of speed skating, improved from 11th to sixth overall. Henriksen has a picture of himself with Ali that was taken last year on a transatlantic flight, at which time Henriksen exuberantly told Ali, "You're the greatest in boxing, and I'm the greatest in speed skating." Well, maybe not, but Henriksen will be a dark horse in both the 1,000 and 1,500. The rest of the U.S. team has been a disaster. With the possible exception of Mary Docter—a long shot in the 3,000—the U.S. women have virtually no chance of winning a medal in Sarajevo.

Differences between Corby, Mueller and Sandvig came to a head last February when Sandvig, who was on the U.S. Olympic speed skating squad in 1952, '56 and '60, traveled to Europe to "help" with the world championships. "He didn't come over to help," claims Corby. "He came over on an evidence-gathering mission to find out if the skaters were happy."

Sandvig denies this. "That wasn't my purpose," he says. "One of our skaters, Nancy Swider, came up to me after the worlds and said the girls were very frustrated with the coaching. Naturally I was concerned. The only other skater I talked to was Thometz, and I asked him during a bus ride if he had been working with Bob and if we had a coaching problem."

Thometz, who defended Corby and Mueller, later told his coaches of the exchange. Upset that Sandvig had gone behind their backs at such a critical stage in the season, Corby and Mueller resigned during the World Sprint Championships banquet on Feb. 27. The resignation was accepted; a USISA board member later approached Holum and asked her to apply for the Olympic job.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as simple as slam, bam, don't-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-can, Messrs. Corby and Mueller. "If you switch football coaches in the middle of the season, the players have no choice but to stick with the second coach," says Sandvig. "But we don't have that sort of power."

USISA doesn't have that sort of power because U.S. skaters have had a long tradition of training independently or with the coach of their choice, and the skaters pay training-camp expenses out of their own pockets. Except for a pittance here and there, the only things USISA picks up are the salary and travel expenses of the coach. When the USISA met on Sept. 10, by which time Mueller had decided to become a competitor again, some of the skaters who had trained under Corby showed up to plead for his rehiring. They were rebuffed. "The skaters have no say," says Plant, one of those who fought for Corby. "I had sent a letter to the board on behalf of all of us who had trained with Corby, all the top male skaters except one or two, but we just ran up against a dead end."

One of the reasons might have been that Corby wanted $8,000 to work with the skaters through the Olympics. The board agreed to contribute only $1,500. It also suggested that every skater who wanted to train with Corby should pay him $500 out of his or her own pocket. "They thought that was very humorous," says Thometz. Certainly Corby wasn't laughing; he chose to continue working as a physical therapist in a Madison hospital, rather than go to Germany for such a meager sum.

So instead of paying some $1,600 each to train under USISA's Coach Holum in Norway, a third of the U.S. team preferred to go it alone in Inzell. "It's a definite disadvantage not to have a coach," says Plant. "It's such a technical sport you have to watch the little things that you're doing wrong. It's just a headache, and when you're training four times a day, and you're tired...." He pauses. "It would be nice to have someone push you along a little bit."

Mueller, who may still be America's best sprinter, actually sees an advantage in the rift. "It makes our guys in Inzell work a little bit harder," he says. "And if we are good, then it won't be because of some program made up by USISA, but because of a program made up by individuals and because of a lot of hardworking, enthusiastic kids."

Which is more or less the way it has always been in U.S. speed skating. Holum recalls that when she was skating, she worked out with the Dutch team more than with the Americans. It is, after all, a highly individual sport. Still, one can't help but consider these words from Corby: "I couldn't let things go by just so I could be the Olympic coach. These kids work so hard, so far beyond ordinary limits. They deserve better."


Troubled Trondheim: Gray skies, steady rain, poor ice and high prices met the 31 members of the team who followed Holum to Norway.


Inviting Inzell: Sunshine, brilliant foliage and fast ice brightened the visit of dissident U.S. skaters, though they missed having a coach.


Heiden's medals symbolized a golden era.


Plant trailed Thometz at Inzell while he worked up an appetite for a dish served by Mueller to Plant (left) and Mark Mitchell.


Mueller, checking his skate blade, feels that USISA officials have dulled the skaters' edge.


Holum left the team in 1980 just before having Kirstin.


Sandvig (above) says he went to Europe to help; Corby says Sandvig came to snoop.