The small bachelor pad Sheila Young and her fiancé, Jim Ochowicz, share in Tallahassee, Fla., looks more like a locker room than a love nest. Five varieties of sneakers are strewn around the living room, dirty sweatsocks lie on the Formica kitchen table, and the bedroom closet is the garage for two 10-speed bicycles. “We aren’t meticulous housekeepers,” apologizes Sheila, but in their world neatness doesn’t count—only quickness. Sheila, 25, is, of course, the speed skater who copped three medals, including a gold, in the Winter Olympics at Innsbruck. Jim, 24, a bicycle sprint star, is now competing to make the U.S. team for the Summer Olympics at Montreal.
But why the his-and-her racing bikes in the bedroom? Because superjock Young is a former U.S. and world sprint champ in cycling, and the only reason she won’t pile up more medals in Montreal is that there is no women’s Olympic competition in the sport. The other question is, what are Sheila and Jim doing in the same bedroom? Well, to the consternation of his Midwestern parents, nothing is quite like it used to be in amateur athletics.
Ochowicz of Milwaukee and Young of Detroit met at a bike race three years ago. “Jim knew my brother Roger [another top U.S. cyclist] and asked him if he would get me to line him up with a girlfriend,” remembers Sheila. She obliged, and by the time that romance took a spill she and Jim were tight. “I had stayed at his house in Milwaukee while I was training at the ice-skating rink in West Allis, Wis.,” she continues. “I knew his parents. He was like a brother,” she says. “When I started getting romantically interested in Oatch [her private nickname for Jim], it was really weird.”
The decision to live together last summer was traumatic. “It was getting a little uncomfortable at Jim’s house,” Sheila reports. “We had to go out to be alone. He wasn’t even allowed to come into my bedroom. So we decided we had to move out—together.” “My mother is a devout Catholic,” says Jim, “and she wasn’t thrilled.” “That’s for sure,” Sheila interrupts. “She’d quote us Scripture that if we wanted to live together we ought to be married. But as far as I was concerned there was no sense in being married unless you wanted children, and we definitely didn’t until after the Olympics. And neither of us could see marrying someone we hadn’t lived with before, but his mother stuck by the Book. It made us both feel a little guilty.”
The only earthly punishment they have suffered so far is at mealtime. Relocating to an apartment in Austin, Tex., to train, they quickly discovered that neither had a knack for cooking. Like most world-class athletes, Sheila and Jim were not traditional help-around-the-house children. Her father, a clerk in an automobile supply plant, and her mother (who died of cancer when Sheila was 13) were skilled cyclists and skaters. Jim’s father, a bridge builder, once raced bicycles himself. So both kids were pedaling two-wheelers sans training wheels as toddlers.
Neither had time for college. She was competing in the nationals in skating and cycling at 11. He was racing nationally at an equally early age and made the ’72 Olympics team, but is having to hump to qualify this year because he switched briefly in the interim to road racing. Failure, in the wake of his lady’s triumphs, would be mortifying. “I may be under pressure,” Jim admits, “but I have Sheila. She pushes me more than I would myself, and understands what I have to do, training-wise, to make the team.” They get up at 7 every morning and ride at least 75 miles, then put in an hour doing calisthenics and walking. “For relaxation we play tennis or swim,” Sheila says, “and we like to watch cartoons on TV because it takes absolutely no energy.”
How do the kids support themselves? Jim socked away some money as a construction worker while Sheila was practicing for Innsbruck. In addition, they count on substantial doles from home and reimbursements for expenses from the various amateur athletic organizations. Their equipment—which can easily cost $4,000 annually—is supplied by the Wolverine-Schwinn Cycle Club. To get to Austria to watch Sheila, Jim had to sell a couple of their racing bikes.
Now all the attention Sheila is getting has disrupted their life. “People will call us at the damnedest hours of the night,” he says. “The phone always seems to be ringing—and it’s always for her. I really don’t mind all the publicity she’s been getting because she deserves it. But I really get annoyed when it begins interfering with our relationship.”
Sheila smiles sympathetically. “He was real mad when I insisted that we have a phone installed here, but I just couldn’t get by without one. All the arguments we’ve had have been about all the phone calls. Like I’ve been invited to play in this celebrity tennis tournament in Las Vegas. I love tennis, so I really want to go. But if I do, I’ll miss one day of his Olympic trials.” Jim cuts in, “I was there when you won your medals. No, you’re right, my race isn’t that important. But if I don’t make it you’ll be sorry.” He winks at Sheila before leaving for his evening ride of 30 miles.
Once he is safely outside, Sheila confides, “He wasn’t kidding. He gets tremendously jealous when people steal me away from him. If the shoe were on the other foot I couldn’t stand it. I guess that’s one reason he wants to get married so much. He wanted to do it last fall, then it was this May. Now we’ll do it after the Olympics and world championships. We wanted to have all our friends there, and I want it to be all very traditional—my father giving me away, you know, everything.
“But marriage scares me a little. I wouldn’t want to be home with the kids all the time. But Jim has this terrific male ego, and he likes being the breadwinner. I guess what I’m saying is I’m afraid I’ll miss skating a lot, and if I don’t find something else to do I’ll be longing to get back into the sport, and I really don’t want that because it would take too much out of our family.” Neither has firm postcompetition game plans. Sprinters don’t get ice show offers like figure skaters, and Sheila is toying vaguely with the idea of recreational work with kids. Having been a laborer, Jim would like to be a contractor. But there’s no way he would put up with playing George Zaharias to her Babe Didrikson—a possible difficulty, say some friends, facing their marriage. “Sometimes, the whole idea really frightens me,” Sheila confesses. “Maybe our problem [their parents would say amen] is that we’ve put it off too long.”