Gold Diggers of 1988

With its cowboy roots and raucous frontier tradition, Calgary (pop. 640,000), in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, has always been a great party town. Each summer the city hosts the Calgary Stampede—a 10-day orgy of hell-raising and rodeo. By the time the 16-day Olympic blowout begins this Saturday (Feb. 13), the Stampede may look like a garden party. Close to 200,000 visitors are expected; some $1 billion will be pumped into the economy. For the U.S., the Winter Games could be an exercise in frustration; America’s team is given only a long-shot chance for medals in most events. Still, as the 1980 U.S. hockey team proved, miracles do happen. Herewith, then, a look at some of our best hopes—and at some foreign competitors too exotic to ignore.


As he weaves his ’84 Camaro through the streets of San Francisco, Brian Boitano, 24, four-time U.S. figure-skating champion, pictures the magic moment: “I’m taking my bows,” he says. “Everyone is cheering and I feel great, really proud. Yeah,” he adds with a smile, “I dream of the gold.” In his case it’s more than a dream. “His competition will be incredible,” says Dorothy Hamill, “but Brian is the best skater in the world today.”

Boitano’s promise was evident early. Growing up in Sunnyvale, Calif., he would, at age 8, amaze his friends and terrify his parents with his death-defying roller-skate stunts. Fearing for his safety, and hoping he would learn some discipline, dad Lew, a banker, and mom Donna, a housewife, sent him to a local ice-skating rink for lessons. Linda Leaver, his first teacher and still his coach, remembers that auspicious day. “In the first half hour,” she says, “he learned five different jumps.”

Boitano won 17 regional medals by the time he was 12. He finished fifth at Sarajevo in 1984 but captured the world championship two years later. Then, last year, he was runner-up to Brian Orser, his archrival from Canada. One big reason for his failure: a bold and breakneck maneuver known as the quadruple toe loop—a jump requiring four full revolutions in the air—which had only once before been tried in competition. Although he routinely nails it in practice, Brian went for the quad and fell. Don’t expect to see the jump at Calgary. “I sacrificed my world title for it,” says Brian. “I won’t sacrifice an Olympic medal.”

As skaters the two Brians are radically different. Boitano, 5’11” and 158 lbs., is a technically perfect power-skater; Orser, 5’4″, 135 lbs., has a quick, light style. “The judges are going to have to choose from two sides of a coin,” says Boitano. He and Orser, who is favored to win, have remained cautious friends despite their rivalry. “We both want the same thing, so it’s hard to go out and mingle,” explains Boitano. “But no matter who wins, when it’s over we’ll be able to set everything aside and have fun.”

To win, Boitano must be flawless, and one former champion is predicting he will be. “He’ll have to give the performance of his life,” says Hamill. “But I think he’ll do it.”


It was persistence rather than kismet that brought together pairs skaters Jill Watson, 24, and Peter Oppegard, 28. In 1984 both were abandoned by partners who wanted to turn pro and cash in. “I kept calling him,” says Watson, who was attracted by Oppegard’s drive and talent. “Finally he said he’d try out with me.” Since teaming up, the couple has won three national championships. They are currently ranked third in the world and are America’s best hope for a medal in pairs, an event that had been dominated by the Soviet Union until England’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean struck gold at Sarajevo in 1984.

Oppegard, who hails from Knoxville, Tenn., and is one of eight children, and Watson, from Bloomington, Ind., have undeniable chemistry, on ice and off. “We’re like Sam and Diane of Cheers in some ways,” says Oppegard. “Yeah, the way we fight,” laughs Watson. “We skate and get on each others nerves.”

No wonder. The two have been practicing together four hours a day for two years at a Birmingham, Mich., rink. Their grueling workouts include an additional 2½ hours of aerobics and weight lifting. On the road six months a year, they have become close friends—and just close friends. “We don’t know that many other people,” says Oppegard, who at 6′ stands a full foot taller than his diminutive partner. “I’d love to have a relationship one day, but right now I can’t take the time.” In what little spare time she has, Watson is taking a correspondence course in the history of sports from In diana University. Over the holidays she made padded photo frames and hand-painted, beaded sweat suits as gifts for friends. “It’s hard to find time for anything else,” she says. “We skate. That’s what we do.”

Both of them love skiing and tennis. Both studied jazz and ballet. Both have good luck charms. (He wears the same unwashed socks through each major event, while she keeps a lucky dime she got from a cousin who won thousands of dollars on TV’s $25,000 Pyramid.) And each has broken the other’s nose in training. “We share the same intensity and determination,” says Oppegard. After the Olympics they might join an ice show together. But for now their eyes are fixed on one more thing they share—a lust for gold.


It won’t get her into the multiple-personality hall of fame, but there are two Jill Trenarys. “Off the ice, I’m mush,” says Trenary, the 19-year-old figure skater from Minnetonka, Minn. “I always want hugs and support. On the ice…I am really tough.”

In fact, Debi Thomas, who solidly beat Trenary for the U.S. championship on Jan. 10, has called her a “tiger-like competitor.” Jill doesn’t deny it. “I want to be a graceful tiger,” she says. “A pretty tiger.” Meanwhile, she’d like to rip the opposition to pieces. Nothing personal, you understand.

Jill began skating in 1976. Six years later her father, a steel executive, sent her to train in Colorado and work with coach Carlo Fassi, whose alumni association includes Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Trenary’s U.S. teammate Caryn Kadavy. Fassi worries that Trenary may be just “too dedicated. Sometimes I tell her to quit and relax. But she never quits.”

Jill, who spends six hours a day in practice, lives with a married couple known in skating circles outside Denver. (Her parents are divorced; she tries to see them monthly.) Her workouts are grueling, but she does know how to relax. “If I’m really tense, I take a hot bath, then bake cookies,” she says. Then, with a laugh, she admits, “I bake a lot of cookies.” She also has a weakness for Italian clothes and movies. (Dirty Dancing is a favorite.) She has no steady boyfriend and sometimes finds it difficult to socialize with people her age. “They don’t understand,” she says. “I’ve totally dedicated my life to my sport.”

Not only will Trenary be facing the gifted Thomas, she will also have to contend with the elegant East German Katarina Witt, the reigning world champ and 1984 gold medalist. “She is the epitome,” says Trenary. “Beautiful, talented and tough.”

There’s that word again. Trenary knows about tough. In June 1985, in a freak accident during practice, another skater’s blade severed the calf muscles and an artery in her left leg. “The leg was dead,” she says. “I thought, ‘Pfffft, my career is over.’ ” But Trenary battled back and upset Thomas for the 1986 U.S. title. “Jill has everything,” says Fassi. “The jumping, the style, the aggressiveness. But I think her time is next year. She will be the world champion.” Trenary agrees—to a point. “You wait your turn in this sport,” she says. “But if you train hard, work hard and you’re ready….”


Jan Bucher, America’s grande dame of freestyle skiing, remembers when the sport was called simply hotdogging, and Alpine-skiing types looked down their noses at her—or worse. Once, from a ski lift on Mount Hood in Oregon, a guy pelted her with Milk-Bones while screaming, “Here, doggie, doggie!” Says Bucher, 30, “I felt really hurt.”

Now Bucher’s pain has turned to pride. Freestyle, an acrobatic event consisting of turns, leaps, flips and all manner of skiing gymnastics, has acquired enough respectability to qualify as a demonstration sport at Calgary and is considered a virtual shoo-in to be added as a full-fledged event in 1992. No longer do the crazed hotdoggers head down the slopes on a pair of skis and a prayer, in a sport with no rules and not much common sense. “There were a lot of wild things going on back then,” says Denver Post writer Charlie Meyers, who follows freestyle. “People took terrible chances. Some wound up in wheelchairs.” Only when insurance companies refused to insure competitions was the sport forced to clean up its act.

Bucher has racked up seven World Cup championships and three U.S. titles. “If I were facing me,” says Bucher (pronounced Boo-her, but please don’t), “I’d be intimidated.” The Salt Lake City native began her career as a figure skater. Then a series of ankle injuries sidelined her at 18. She first got into freestyle at the urging of some skiers she met in Utah, who wanted her to teach them the finer points of style. To finance the sport that would become her obsession, she began teaching skating and working odd jobs. It was not a lucrative passion. “Let’s just say I ate a lot of candy bars,” she says.

She’s still hungry. “She has an insatiable appetite for success,” says Peter Judge, her husband of nearly three years and the coach of Canada’s freestyle team. “She’s a perfectionist.”

Bucher has two hopes for Calgary. First, that millions of TV viewers seeing her sport for the first time will be enthralled. “I want them to wonder how the hell we’re doing what we’re doing on skis,” she declares. And what else? “Maybe I’m an old dog,” she says. “But I’d still like to win.”


Let David Letterman get a few late-night laughs raising money for the U.S. luge team. Let some dumb Congressman—yes, it actually happened—ask if luge is some sort of fish delicacy. “After this Olympics,” predicts Bonny Warner, 25, of Mount Baldy, Calif., “everyone will know what luge is.”

Warner, the current U.S. women’s champion and “a very good long shot for a medal,” claims that luge “looks a lot scarier than it is,” and maybe she’s right. Sliders—as lugers call themselves—lie on their backs on fiberglass sleds (pods) and hurtle down a refrigerated track, reaching speeds of up to 80 mph, navigating by the seat of their skintight rubberized suits. Controlling one’s fear is nearly as important for a luger as lightning reflexes. “It’s not a physical sport per se, but there is a lot of strategy and technique,” says Warner, ranked among the world’s top five. “It’s close to the Zen-like side of martial arts. You have to be relaxed going at 60 mph plus—and that’s not natural at all.”

Her route to Calgary was as full of twists and turns as any luge course. She won an essay contest to be a torchbearer at Lake Placid in 1980. After the Games she enrolled in a luge clinic and soon won $5,000 in yet another contest. She flew to West Germany and asked the national team there for help. “They thought it was funny and I wouldn’t be a threat,” she says. They’re not laughing anymore. Warner hopes to go into broadcasting. When her event is over at Calgary, she will do bit reports for a San Francisco TV station. But she’s in no hurry to take her place in front of the camera for good. “I love what I’m doing,” she says. “That’s why I’m so fast.”


By the tender age of 6, Erika Brown, the youngest U.S. competitor at Calgary, was practicing the sport of curling by sliding ashtrays at the local curling club in her hometown of Madison, Wis. She never stopped. Now, says her mother, Diane, “she exists in two worlds—high school and the Olympian world.”

Her Olympian world will come equipped with an asterisk. Curling is a demonstration sport this year—meaning no official medals for Erika, 15, or anybody else on the men’s or women’s teams that will be fielded by nine countries. To the uninitiated, the game, which originated in Scotland on frozen lochs, looks like shuffleboard on ice. Two four-member teams compete by sliding 42-pound (or so) polished-granite “rocks”—shaped like tea kettles, but without the spout—down a 126-foot rink. The idea is for one team to slide its stones into the bull’s-eye, or “house,” at the end of the rink, or to nudge the opponent’s rocks out of position. Stones are delivered with a twist to the left or the right, which gives curling its name. Once the stone is thrown, sweepers with brooms may redirect it by feverishly smoothing its path on the ice. Curling is practically sweeping the nation, with 30,000 curlers in 23 states; worldwide, more than one million play the sport in countries such as Canada, France, Norway and New Zealand, as well as Scotland.

Erika’s interest in the sport was handed down father-to-daughter. Her dad, Steve, has a mail-order curling equipment business and was the captain of two national championship teams. A state champion golfer in the 14-and-under age group, Erika was also once a feared slugger in Little League and last month led her team to the national junior ladies’ curling championship. She had only one reservation about trying out for the Olympics. “I didn’t think I had the experience to keep myself cool enough to play as good as I could,” she says. She did, though, and has fit in well on the team, some of whose members are three times her age. “We all had something in common,” Erika says. “It’s not like I’m 15 and Carla [Casper] is 42. We’re just teammates.”

But then, Erika seems to know as much about diplomacy as she does about curling. She would never, for example, wear her Olympic team jacket to LaFollette High School, where she is a freshman. “It might give people the wrong opinion,” she says. “Like I’m trying to say, ‘Hey, I’m an Olympian and you’re not.’ ”


On March 18, 1964, Charlie Blair dropped off his pregnant wife, Eleanor, at a Cornwall, N.Y., hospital, then continued on to the local rink where three of his children were involved in a speed-skating competition. A few hours later Charlie heard the news on the loudspeaker: “Another speed skater has been born.” Nobody had to ask who the father was.

Nearly 24 years later Bonnie Blair is the U.S. team’s best hope for a gold medal in Calgary. In fact speed skating fans think she’s good for two medals—a gold in the 500-meter, a silver in the 1,000-meter—and is a strong contender for a bronze in the 1,500-meter. Along with Nick Thometz, 24, pride of the men’s team, Blair is America’s strongest entry in speed skating since Eric Heiden heisted five gold medals at Lake Placid in 1980. “I have expectations and I know what I’m capable of,” says Blair, who calls Heiden her idol. “What he did was unbelievable and will never be done again.”

Before she can claim her own heavy medals, Blair will first have to out-skate two formidable East Germans—Christa Rothenburger and the veteran Karin Kania, a tough 5’10”, 160-lb. beautician from Dresden. Relatively small for her sport (5’4½”, 125 lbs.), Blair relies on technique more than power. In Calgary, with its indoor rink, that will probably work to her advantage. Outdoors, stronger skaters have an edge fighting the wind.

Blair is the youngest of six children. Four of her five siblings have held national or North American speed-skating titles, but Bonnie is the best of the brood. As a 2-year-old, she wore baby shoes inside her oversize figure skates; at 4, she entered her first competition, and at a geriatric 7, she raced in the Illinois state championships—the family having relocated to Champaign when Bonnie was an infant.

Since 1986 she has been based in Butte, Mont., where she trains and lives with boyfriend Dave Silk, 22, a member of the men’s speed-skating team, and his parents. In her rare free time she writes letters, devours Danielle Steel romance novels and tries to catch up on her soap operas. “My mom sends me the updates when I’m in Europe,” she says.

Former Olympian Mike Woods once observed, “Bonnie skates like a guy.” Blair took that as a compliment. In fact at the 1985 National Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, she was a last-minute replacement in the 5,000-meter men’s relay, which her team won. “It was a blast,” she says. “The exchange wasn’t a baton. It was a push on the rear end. These guys pushed me so hard I was halfway around the track.”

The Olympics, she hopes, will also be a blast. She has already won plenty of championships, and claiming another—or even another and another and another—is not what excites her. “I don’t think winning means anything in particular,” she says with sincerity. “It’s the satisfaction you get from knowing you did your best.”

—Written by Jack Friedman from bureau reports

Hey, Mon-Now For Something Completely Different!

In a country where the windchill factor |sometimes sends temperatures plummeting into the 70s—above zero, that is—the bobsled is hardly the recreational vehicle of choice. So credit two enterprising Americans living in Jamaica—investment consultant George Fitch, 38, and businessman Bill Maloney, 28—for the appearance of the first-ever contingent of Jamaican bobsledders, the official oddball team of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

The idea began as a joke last year over a few beers, when Fitch and Maloney were thinking up ways to get to Calgary to rub elbows with athletes. Starting a bobsled team seemed a logical choice, since Jamaica has produced some great international runners, and speed and leg-strength are a sledder’s sine qua non. Sure, Jamaica had never sent an athlete to a Winter Olympics, but there was nothing in Olympic rules that said they couldn’t.

The first problem was finding a few good men to make up the team. Fitch and Maloney decided to advertise. They put up colorful posters around the island explaining that “bob-sledding is a winter sport where two or more persons push a sled (cart) off a slope and race down the ice to a finish line…. Bobsledding is similar to our local ‘Push Cart Derby’ without the snow.” Jamaicans were so taken with the posters that they stole them.

Still, 40 men turned up for the two-day tryouts last September. They were shown film of several bobsled races, including a few spectacular crashes. When the lights went on, only 35 would-be Olympians were still in attendance. Soon after, a team was born. On it were three Jamaica Defense Force soldiers, Capt. Dudley Stokes, 25, Lt. Devon Harris, 23, and Pvt. Michael White, 23. Rounding out the five-man squad were Caswell Allen, 23, a student, and Frederick Powell, a 30ish electrician and reggae singer. “I saw this thing on TV,” Powell says, “and I said to myself, ‘Hey, mon, I got to do this thing. I never saw snow.’ ”

Once they had a team, Fitch, who put up $55,000 of his own money, and Maloney set out to get Olympic accreditation, a coach and some snow. (The Jamaicans will compete in the two-and four-man events.) Fitch hired Howard Siler, a two-time U.S. Olympian, and some former U.S. bobsledders to provide pointers.

Training began last September and was rigorous. The team met every day for three weeks on a field near the Jamaica Defense Force firehouse in Kingston and practiced in the tropical sun. Siler forgot to bring an authentic four-man bobsled along, so the team loaded two rocks and a rusted, 30-pound water pump onto a makeshift bobsled (it had pushcart wheels) for ballast and spent hours working on their crucial push starts. Rocking in unison they would shove off from a wall and hurtle down a concrete slope. Soldiers looking on scratched their heads, assuming the bobsledders were either crazy or inventive goldbrickers. The hard work began to pay off, and within two weeks the team’s start times were down to within .6 seconds of the world’s best, those of the East Germans and the Swiss. But you can only go so far on sand and rocks. In late September the team headed to Lake Placid for a test of their mettle on ice.

The first thing Siler taught his charges in Lake Placid was how to walk on snow. That was the easy part. Next came a high-speed jaunt down the 4,670-foot Mount Van Hoevenberg bobsled run. The men were “nervous wrecks” on their first try, says Harris—all except the former driver, Samuel Clayton, who lost concentration on a treacherous turn. Fortunately the team managed to finish intact.

The Jamaicans stayed, practiced and hung around radiators a lot. Back home, though, there were complaints that the bobsled venture was an American folly that made Jamaicans look foolish. In fact one newspaper columnist wondered why, if Fitch and Maloney cared so much about Jamaican sports, they didn’t help out the country’s deteriorating cricket team.

The International Bobsled Federation was similarly unimpressed. The team was told it would not be allowed to compete unless it entered the World Cup competition in Innsbruck last December. “They didn’t want any joke teams, like cross-country skiers from Fiji,” says Fitch. “We had to prove we were no joke.” That they did, finishing a surprising 35th out of 41 teams and cinching an invitation to Calgary. (Taiwan and Ireland were among those who finished behind them.) “It was great,” says Powell, who missed the Lake Placid trip but did get to Austria. “Walking on snow. Sliding. I wore mittens for the first time. It was the most exciting thing in my life.”

Exciting? No question. Entertaining? You bet. During the World Cup other bobsledders watched in disbelief as the Jamaicans prepared for their runs, violating virtually all of the sport’s sacred rituals. While other teams strove to achieve a trancelike state before pushing off by lowering their heads and breathing rhythmically to psych themselves up, the Jamaicans stayed loose, listening to Powell serenade them with a chorus from the 1967 Procol Harum hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale. At the finish line Clayton (he’s no longer with the team) puzzled traditionalists with a Jamaican war cry—a first in international bobsledding.

There will be 44 entrants in the two-man bobsled at Calgary and, at last count, 24 in the four-man event. Even if the Jamaicans win nothing, Fitch and Maloney—the executive director and president, respectively, of the Jamaican Bobsled Federation—are already pleased with what they’ve accomplished. “From idle bar-talk, we are competing on an international scale,” says Maloney, who is hoping for an Olympic finish in the top 40. Should the team achieve it, however, they will celebrate alone. The president of the Jamaican Olympic Committee won’t be there as an eyewitness to history—not if it is made in Canada in the middle of February. Says Mike Fennell: “I hate the cold.”

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