STRANGE THINGS GO THROUGH YOUR MIND BEFORE YOU compete,” says figure skater Paul Wylie, reflecting on his performance at the Winter Olympics. “I kept hearing a quote from Henry V that went something like, ‘We’re not in the enemy’s hands. We’re in God’s hand.’ And I imagined King Henry addressing his troops.” I guess I see King Henry as Shakespeare’s version of Rocky.”
But on Feb. 15 it was Wylie, 27, who went once more into the breach, triumphantly, by winning the silver medal—Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko won the gold—in Albertville, France. Tenth at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the 5’4″, 123-lb. American had been plagued for years with a reputation for freezing up at the worst moments. But at this Winter Games, while the medal favorites were sprawling all around him, Wylie topped his elegant original program with an electrifying free-skating routine, featuring four clean triple jumps, which brought the audience of 9,000 to its feet for the evening’s only standing ovation.
“I knew I could skate this well, but getting the medal is pure serendipity,” says Wylie, shrugging off the widespread notion that he had outskated Petrenko and deserved first place. “The experience vindicates my decision to continue skating after Calgary. It’s especially nice because of the low expectations everyone had for me.”
Unlike his peers, Paul Wylie did not build his life around skating. The youngest of three children of Bob and B.L. Wylie, a geophysicist and a Realtor, Paul remembers being dragged along when sisters Dawn and Clare went skating in their hometown of Dallas. “I was a rink rat, and I used to run my Tonka trucks onto the ice,” he says. “Finally the management got so fed up with me that they just told my mother to put me in skates.”
By age 9, Paul was winning regional competitions, but he had other aspirations. “I wanted to be an architect like Mr. Brady [of The Brady Bunch],” he says. It was in 1976, when the family moved to Denver, that Paul—inspired by watching Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins at the Colorado Ice Arena—got serious about skating. At 15, teamed with Dana Graham, he won the National Junior Pairs title; at 16, he became U.S. National Junior and World Junior champion.
In 1985, after graduating to senior competitions, Wylie left his family and moved to Boston to train with his current coaches, Evy and Mary Scotvold. A year later, at 21, he entered Harvard, dividing his attention between academics and skating. He graduated cum laude in government in 1991. “Once I got out, I finally started to give training the mental focus it requires,” he says.
His new fans are not letting him slip through their fingers either—and, as he awaits responses from the law schools to which he has applied, Wylie is relishing the attention. “No one ever took my picture before, and there were never crowds asking for autographs,” he says. “There were times when I thought of giving up. But now I’m thrilled I kept at it. No matter what I wind up doing with my life, this medal will make a big difference.”
JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Albertville