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The Hero Returns

Canada's Gaetan Boucher, who won gold in Sarajevo, wants to repeat his triumph for the home folks

A speed skater traveling at 40 mph crouches as low as possible to cut the drag of the air. Gaetan Boucher of Canada, the defending Olympic champion at 1,000 and 1,500 meters and bronze medalist at 500, has a face made for this, a face made by this. His face is shaped for slicing through the wind, and as he focuses upon each approaching turn without lifting his head, his dark walnut irises almost disappear under the overhang of his brow. You can see the whites of his eyes from across the track, beacons of his effort.

Once the finish is reached, the gliding, heaving skater with his hands on his thighs becomes a primal image of burning exhaustion. For those seconds the whites of Boucher's eyes turn supplicatory, becoming a wolfs frantic signal of surrender, the way it ends a battle with a larger, stronger animal. The best speed skaters are the athletes who hold on the longest against this beastly, inevitable exhaustion.

Away from the ice, when he's with his wife, Karin, and their two small sons and looking at you mildly through the steam from his espresso, Boucher's expression remains that of the hunt. He still drops his forehead. His eyes still roll up under his brow. It's as if he has not yet lifted his gaze to the world above the final turn.

Which is all for the best just now, because in February he must go out on the pearl-gray ice of Calgary's $38.9 million (U.S.) Olympic Oval and defend not only his Sarajevo medals but also his 1984 vow that he would not race in Calgary unless he could win again.

Boucher is 29. Calgary will be his fourth Olympics. Eric Heiden, his great rival and friend (Boucher got the 1,000-meter silver behind Heiden at the Lake Placid Games of 1980), is a month younger than Boucher, yet Heiden has been retired from skating for eight years. Boucher sustains both speed and career. He has won and that hasn't softened him. He has been hurt and that hasn't discouraged him. Accounting for this, he says simply, "I love the life."

If you know the life, you know much of the man. If you have known four to six hours a day of weights and intervals against brutal resistance on the stationary bike; if you have launched yourself back and forth across a slider-board until your ankles ached; if you have for the last four years trekked to a rink in Inzell, West Germany because your home ice in Canada wasn't frozen—then you know the life.

But you don't know it all. The life is hard and nomadic for a reason. "The purpose is to create the possibility of winning," Boucher says. "That's very special. I won a medal when I was quite young [the Canadian Junior National Championship at 15]. I learned what it was to be at the center of attention. I don't know if I would have continued if I'd not won then. I learned what it was to go to a race and hear everyone whisper, 'Watch this guy.' I've enjoyed what you call this difficult life all this time because I did not want to give up that possibility."

As far back as he can remember, the fierceness has been with him. "As a child I was always alone," he says. This was by choice, since he had two brothers and three sisters. "I wasn't lonely, simply alone, doing things by myself, to my standard." He played hockey, of course. What Quèbecois child does not? But he gave it up at 17, for classically individualistic reasons. "If you played well, you could still lose," he says. "I always gave 100 percent. I didn't like the other kids giving less. But I loved the skating, and there was a skating club, so I went to that."

His father, who worked as a claims appraiser for the Canadian National Railway, supported Gaetan in his seriousness. "We'll buy you skates," Cyranus Boucher said, "but you'd better not stop in two weeks."

Nearly two decades later, it's clear that Boucher's nature and the demands of speed skating simply coalesced. His bountiful energies let him withstand the sport's ferocious training, though it took some time for him to gain full control of his nerves. News accounts of him as a 21-year-old at the 1980 Olympics called him "the hypertense little French Canadian."

"When I grew up in the sport," he says, "I learned to relax and skate my own races."

"Relax," as Boucher uses it, is a relative term. "Pressure will always be there," he says, "but it will only be pressure from myself. Others can never be as disappointed in me as I can be. They go away from seeing me race badly and forget in a week. I live with it."

North American speed skating is obscure and austerely amateur. It's good to remember, in attempting to understand how skating wins its disciples, that the Latin root of the term amateur means "from the heart."

"I never thought of the lack of money and public interest as obstacles," says Boucher. "I only thought of my skating. I kept to the idea that anything that would happen to me as a result of it would be a bonus."

His early career would have been magnificent but for Heiden, whom he celebrates for talent, achievement and not having been ruined by the acclaim that came to him. Heiden quit at 21, after his five golds in Lake Placid and went to cycling, TV work and medical school. Boucher kept skating. Then, in March 1983, he thought it was all over. During a workout on a short track laid out on a hockey rink, the ice seemed to turn to chalk under his skates, and he ended up against the boards. His left ankle was broken and several ligaments in it torn. Heading into surgery, he asked, "Doctor, will I skate again?"

"We'll see."

"I knew ligaments take a year or more, to mend," Boucher says. "There wasn't enough time before the Sarajevo Olympics."

But there was. Ice treatments and stretching had him ready in six months. Never a true sprinter, Boucher nonetheless opened at Sarajevo by getting the bronze in the 500, which assured him that he had his speed. All he had to do was carry it.

In the 1,000, he skated in the 10th pair; the favorites all had finished before he bent to the gun. "I knew their splits; I knew the time to beat," he says. He crossed the line and saw his coach. Jack Walters, with his thumbs up. He had won.

Two days later, he won the 1,500 as well. His haul made him the most bemedaled Canadian Winter Olympian ever. Montreal was electrified, and Quebec nationalism flared up. "Quebec 3, Canada 0," crowed Quebec's then Premier Renè Levesque. Said Boucher coolly, "I don't compete for French Canada or English Canada, but Canada as a whole."

He had studied marketing for a year at Montreal University, so it was no surprise that he was soon doing endorsements for Texaco and Canada's Dairy Bureau. In 1985, in Davos, Switzerland, he turned in what was then history's second-best time for the 1,000—1:12.74. Five months later, under an arch of gleaming skate blades, he married Karin Fliege of West Germany. (Their first son, Jean-Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois, recently put blades to ice for the first time, a month before his second birthday.) The life had turned very good. Even Boucher seemed contented. "I feel less pressure to continue," he said. "If skating isn't going so well, I will be able to drop it."

He would find otherwise. Later in 1985, he began to lose control over his left skate. At first he thought it a flaw that had crept into his technique. But video analysis showed instability—the ligaments injured in 1983 weren't holding the ankle together. Scar tissue was forming around the joint. The ankle grew swollen and weak.

"We tried everything," Boucher says. "Taping, orthotics, moving the skate blades around. Off the ice I could do everything I'd ever done. Only on the blade did I feel the weakness." For two seasons he raced terribly, finishing 15th overall in the 1987 World Sprints. Yet he recoiled from retirement. "The bad races were for a reason," he says. "Not because of age or mental decline, but because of the injury. I always thought I could overcome it."

Just in time he discovered Dr. Hans Wilhelm Müller Wohlfahrt, chief orthopedist for the Bayern München soccer team, who subjected Boucher to an exotic set of treatments involving X-rays, lasers and injections to regenerate the ligaments and clear away scar tissue. "This summer I could see the swelling going down, feel the ankle strengthening," says Boucher.

He augmented it with his usual astounding training. Boucher, who's 5'7" and 160 pounds, thinks nothing of doing 30 squats with 360 pounds on his back. "It's actually fun," he says, "because you can see improvement. I like it a lot better than cycling. It's boring holding my pulse at 80 per cent of maximum for two hours."

Boucher has always lived life to its painful hilt. Only the winning has been missing of late. Now—he did a 1:14 for the 1,000 in a time trial in November, 1½ seconds faster than at Sarajevo—it may be back.

The Calgary oval will allow Olympic speed skating to be held indoors for the first time, and the ice and air will be tuned to ideal temperatures. All the Olympic records should be destroyed. Boucher believes the winner of the 500 can take half a second from Nick Thometz's world record of 36.55. "The winning time in the 1,000 could be 1:11, maybe less," says Boucher.

Again he'll probably be seeded to start late. Again he'll know what he has to do. "I will not be there unless I have a chance to win," he says. "I don't want to get 10th just to say I skated in four Olympics." Unquestionably, he will skate well. Crossing the line, the pain will be all through him, and he will have won or lost. And the life will be over.

He has always known this would come. "You can't expect your family to arrange their lives for your training forever," he says. But he acknowledges, too, that he will face an adjustment such as he has never known. The new life will be accompanied by an elemental ache, that of withdrawing from old, fierce standards. "I think some part of me will always hate to watch," he says, "knowing I used to beat them all."