He knew in his heart he could skate well. Not win a medal, necessarily—that was never the goal—but skate well. Do himself and his coaches, Evy and Mary Scotvold, proud. So 27-year-old Paul Wylie stayed on in amateur figure skating long after his peers had retired or turned pro. Stayed on past the 1988 Olympics, in which he finished 10th. Stayed on past the 1990 and '91 world championships, in which he finished 10th and 11th, respectively. Stayed on to skate in the Albertville Games despite all too often being a disappointment waiting to happen.
But the figure skating god must love gumption, for last Saturday night, in the most surprising and uplifting performance of his life, Wylie showed nine judges, 9,000 wildly approving spectators and a worldwide television audience what his coaches, friends and family had known for years: That here was a singularly talented skater whose gift was all the rarer because it was steeled by extraordinary determination. Wylie's quiet belief in himself was sometimes misinterpreted as an unwillingness to face reality. Make no mistake, though, that resolve earned him the men's silver medal—many observers thought he should have won the gold—which capped an Olympic experience that Wylie later referred to as "serendipity."
It was a popular result, for Wylie has long been admired in the skating community for his intelligence, friendliness and artistry. People rooted for him, even though he was known as a "practice skater." In 11 years of major competitions, Wylie either fell or staggered through his routines. He knew it, his parents knew it, the Scotvolds knew it. He didn't stand up under pressure. It had happened as recently as last month's U.S. nationals, an event Wylie has never won; he skated so poorly that he changed into his street clothes before the medals ceremony, only to discover that his chief competitors had also botched their programs and that he'd finished second, qualifying for Albertville. "I'd already moved on to the rest of my life, mentally," said Wylie last week.
The rest of his life probably will include law school. Wylie, who graduated from Harvard last June, spent the weeks leading up to the nationals filling out 11 law school applications. Smart cookie. But in the opinion of Evy Scotvold, who coaches Wylie in Acton, Mass., Wylie's intelligence was part of the problem. "His brain's killing him," Scotvold said the day after the opening ceremony in Albertville. "He's got to stop thinking out there."
Scotvold wanted Wylie to quit analyzing his technique while he was skating and allow muscle memory to take over. Every time Wylie approached a triple Axel, he was stricken with paralysis by analysis. The issue came to a head during an early practice session in Albertville. Wylie was having difficulty with his jumps, and when he approached Evy for advice, Evy told him he hadn't been watching him. Wylie fumed. Scotvold snapped that if Wylie couldn't figure out by himself how to jump after all these years, they both were wasting their time. Then Evy stepped out of character by saying, "Look, you owe me. I don't owe you. I've put everything I had into you for the last seven years, and you can't stay on your goddam feet."
Wylie was stung. The Scotvolds, you must understand, care for him as they would a son. They had attended his Harvard graduation, which—before last Saturday night—was the proudest Evy and Mary had ever been of Wylie. During the last week of practice in Acton, Mary had burst into tears three times just at the thought that their seven years together would soon be over. And here was Evy telling Wylie that the skater owed him.
Wylie didn't talk to Evy the rest of the day, but he responded to the put-down by having the best week of practice that Scotvold could remember. In recalling the incident, Evy admitted that the harsh medicine was a tactic his own father, a former hockey coach, had often used to motivate him. "If Paul skates lousy, it'll be my fault," said Evy. "You can't win. But you've got to try something."
Last Thursday, the day of the short program, which historically has been his downfall, Wylie was a bundle of nerves. He skated well at the morning practice. Nothing new there. Afterward, however, rather than sit in the stands and visit with his family and his girlfriend, Kristin Brunner, Wylie hurried back to the Olympic Village. He later called Brunner, a 19-year-old sophomore premed student at Harvard, to apologize for having stormed off. The Unified Team had been working out, and the last thing he needed on a day of the competition was to watch Viktor Petrenko, a native of the Ukraine and one of the favorites to win the gold.
This was Brunner's first trip to Europe. Indeed, it was the first time she had ever seen Wylie compete in person. He had never before asked her along because of what lie called his competition-week, Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. However, he had found that having her with him helped. She is from Hot Springs, Ark., and knows next to nothing about skating. He wanted to see her, but he didn't want to go to the house in the town of Frontenex where she was staying with his parents, his two sisters, his sponsor Lisa Webster, and other friends and relatives—a house oozing with tension and skating expertise. Could Brunner come up to the athletes' village?
So she took a car up to Brides-les-Bains, 40 minutes away, and spent the afternoon with Wylie talking about home and school friends. About anything but skating. It was exactly what Wylie needed, and after Brunner left, he took a nap.