People Staff
December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

Discus thrower Al Oerter won his first Olympic gold medal in 1956. He made it four straight—a record—before retiring in 1968. Today, at 42, Oerter is trying for No. 5. “No voice boomed down and told me it was time,” he jokes. Oerter says he now has the hours for practice because his two daughters, whose custody he got in a 1976 divorce, are at college. The 6’2″, 280-pound data manager has a best throw of 219’10″—15 feet off the world record. But he thinks he’ll at least make the U.S. team. “I just try,” he says, “to stay ahead of the thundering herd.”

“I feel like an East German,” says javelin thrower Kate Schmidt. “I am totally in training.” The 6’1″ 170-pounder has been trading the world record with East Germany’s Ruth Fuchs, who now holds it. In September Kate, 25, moved from Long Beach, Calif. to join a fledgling sports medicine program at the University of British Columbia and hopes to reclaim the record in Moscow. The move also solved boyfriend problems. “I used to look around wondering, ‘Where is he, where is he,’ ” she says. “It was time for a change.”

She was only supposed to give them a scare, but at the World Cup II Games in Montreal last summer, sprinter Evelyn Ashford, 22, upset the East German world record holders in the 100-and 200-meter dashes. “The 200 surprised me,” gasped Ashford, “but then I won the 100 and I was in shock.” Evelyn started running at 13 in Alabama, where her family lived while her dad was in Vietnam with the Air Force. Moving to California, Evelyn earned an athletic scholarship to UCLA in 1976. A sociology major, she’s married to ex-college basketball player Ray Washington, who has to be understanding before a meet—Evelyn has been known to tense up and throw things around the house. She’s now concentrating on distance work, and coach Pat Connolly has also ordered Ashford to ignore reporters. One of them reports that she cowers like “a cornered doe when the press moves in.” Otherwise, she runs like one.

Gymnast Tracee Talavera will be 14 next September, making the Olympic age minimum with three months to spare; at 4’9″, 78 pounds, she doesn’t look her age. Yet she could be among the leaders of the 1980 U.S. team. Tracee was watching Olga Korbut on TV at home, in Walnut Creek, Calif., during the 1976 Olympics when she decided to be a gymnast. A year later she enrolled at a live-in gymnastics school in Eugene, Oreg. It’s 522 miles from her parents, and she spends only three weeks a year at home. “It’s hard,” she says. “But it’s fun too.” Today Tracee is among the top five in the U.S., but still has to pass the Olympic trials in May. Her day begins at dawn with a six-hour workout, and she’s also taking four courses in junior high. She lives with her coaches and shares the household chores. Boyfriends? “Most of them seem so young,” says Tracee, “and they’re pretty little.”

Perhaps Old Dominion’s basketball team, 1978 women’s college champions, should represent the U.S. in Moscow en masse. As it is, the Norfolk, Va. school may place three players—Anne Donovan, 18, left, Jan Trombly, 21, center, and Nancy Lieberman, 21—on the Olympic squad. “We win together, lose together and have fun together,” says Lieberman. A senior from Far Rockaway, N.Y., she’s 5’10”, the flashiest of the three and admits her competitive nature has hampered her social life in the past. Now she says, “I’ve matured a great deal and it’s really no problem.” Donovan, a 6’8″ freshman, had 200 college scholarship offers. She admits feeling like an “oddity” growing up in Paramus, N.J., but her current date, a fellow student, is taller than Anne. Trombly, 6′, from Chazy, N.Y., will have to struggle for a spot on the U.S. team. In October she had to undergo knee surgery. But she’s determined. “When people used to tell me I was wasting my time playing sports, I said I’d show them,” she recalls. “This is my chance.”

At 17, Jennifer Chandler finished first in springboard diving at the Montreal Olympics. She’s had problems since then. First came post-Olympic blues when, she says, “I was burned out.” Then last year Jenni strained a back muscle and was sidelined for 10 months. But she plunged back into training last Oct. 1 and is confident “the injury won’t be permanent.” A diver since age 9, Chandler left home in Birmingham, Ala. at 13 for Atlanta to follow her coach. Today Jenni is a sophomore in fine arts at the University of California at Irvine. She’s a serious painter but still dives six days a week. That leaves little time for her boyfriend, but she smiles, “He’s a golfer, so he understands.” Though she expects competition from the East Germans and the U.S.S.R.’s Irina Kalinina, Jenni says, “You are only really diving against yourself, again and again and again.”

“What would really bother me,” says speed skater Eric Heiden, 21, “would be to finish a race and feel I hadn’t given it everything.” As three straight world championships attest, he’s rarely so bothered. Sister Beth, 20, is no slouch either. In the ’79 world meet in Holland she won all four events from 500 to 3,000 meters, the first American woman to do that in 43 years. The Heidens grew up in Madison, Wis. skating on Lake Mendota. Eric took to hockey, Beth to figures, but in 1972 ex-Olympic speeder Dianne Holum became their coach. Though Eric’s best in 1976 was a seventh and Beth’s was an 11th, they could sweep all nine golds at Lake Placid. Both have dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to train. (She’s an aspiring engineer; he plans on med school.) Yet they downplay the Olympics—”It’s not the pinnacle of achievement,” Beth says. And they shun publicity. Eric provided a reason at a recent press conference. Asked how, under such pressure, he could still be a “regular guy,” he blurted, “Well, I don’t take Ex-Lax.”

Bill Koch, 23, won the first U.S. medal in Olympic cross-country skiing, a silver in 1976. Then he dropped off the circuit, weakened by illness and unnerved by his new celebrity status. Now Bill has finally rejoined the world top 10 and is logging 140 miles a week. He began skiing at 2 in Guilford, Vt., never attended college and supports wife Katie and Leah, 2, with “expense payments” received from U.S. ski team sponsors. For fun he retreats to his forested property near Guilford to chop wood—and clear ski trails.

Going into the Olympics as 1979 world champion isn’t easy, as figure skater Linda Fratianne, 19, is learning. Among the challengers, second-ranked American Lisa-Marie Allen, 19, sniped this fall that Linda “has to be told everything to do.” Fratianne, with rare emotion, replied, “What it boils down to is, I’m No. 1 and she’s No. 2. She must be jealous.” Linda, whose training includes ballet and weight lifting, points out, “No one can be programmed to win. I listen to my coach, but out there on the ice the winning comes from myself.”

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