Beginning in 1983, he finished fourth in the World Sprints four years in a row, earning him the unwelcome nickname of Mr. Fourth. At the Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984, he came in a disappointing 14th in the 1,500, fifth in the 500 and fourth in the 1,000. "Fourth wasn't so bad." he insists now. But Thometz's record at Sarajevo was no worse than that of his teammates, none of whom won medals. Heiden, who is now a second-year medical student at Stanford University, says of their dismal performance: "We had such a good team before 1980 that the younger skaters never got a chance for a place on the national team and to compete internationally. Then the team all quit after Lake Placid, and the younger skaters just didn't have the experience."
Thometz and the rest of the U.S. team returned from Yugoslavia deeply discouraged. "After Sarajevo it looked like a long road to the next Olympics, and I didn't know if I could hang on or if I wanted to," he recalls.
But he did, and last year his skating underwent a significant transformation. He ran away with World Cup titles in the 500 and 1,000 meters, and he won the Golden Skate competition, which once signified the year-end championship, at both those distances, earning a pair of miniature speed skates cast in gold. He then narrowly missed winning the World Sprint championship in Sainte Foy, Quebec, when Japan's Akira Kuroiwa, who will be a strong rival in the Calgary Olympics, slipped past Thometz in the 1,000-meter final.
"It just clicked," Thometz says of his turnaround season. Crowe has a more specific explanation. "Nick started winning as soon as he started having confidence in his skating," he says. "Even before he got his confidence, he was strong, but early last season he skated some races right. Then in one he tightened up and ran. He realized the difference between skating and running from then on."
Thometz now practices his own private brand of visual imagery—a technique used by many athletes—to maintain his form through an entire race. In his mind he hears Crowe calling out his splits as he comes around the curve, and he imagines the sensation of skating with a long, efficient stride. His face lights up as he says, "Those races where you know you're I going good, that's a neat feeling. Then when you come across the finish and see a good time, it's the greatest feeling."
The best feeling of all will come when he pulls back the hood of his flashy racing skin and mounts the winner's podium at Calgary. Toward this end, Thometz and the rest of the team spent the summer training harder and longer than they ever have before. They did sessions of running sprints, running hills, running distance, bicycling hills and sprints, lifting weights to exhaustion and lifting weights for speed. (Blair can squat 240 pounds.) On dry land they simulated the motion of skating by performing the duck walk, which looks something like an imitation of Groucho Marx, and working on the slide board, a piece of Formica on which you glide back and forth in your stocking feet. In between were sets of diabolical exercises in which the skater stands on one leg and moves slowly up and down. Now that they're practicing on the ice, the quotidian torture hasn't abated; ice workouts have simply been added to the list.
"In a way I'm glad they did so badly in '84," says Crowe. "It made them hungry for medals." But trophies aren't the only thing motivating these athletes. They skate, at least in part, out of sheer exuberance. When assistant coach Dan Immerfall, who won his bronze in the 500 meters in 1976, tries to express what racing is like, his description sounds a bit mystical: "When everything seems to be going in slow motion, that's when it's a great race."
Blair puts it more simply: "Skating is joy. It's a solitary sport, one in which you can claim all the rewards as your own. Nobody makes you do it. It's just you."