A speed skater traveling at 40 mph crouches as low as possible to cut the drag of the air. Gaetan Boucher of Canada, the defending Olympic champion at 1,000 and 1,500 meters and bronze medalist at 500, has a face made for this, a face made by this. His face is shaped for slicing through the wind, and as he focuses upon each approaching turn without lifting his head, his dark walnut irises almost disappear under the overhang of his brow. You can see the whites of his eyes from across the track, beacons of his effort.
Once the finish is reached, the gliding, heaving skater with his hands on his thighs becomes a primal image of burning exhaustion. For those seconds the whites of Boucher's eyes turn supplicatory, becoming a wolfs frantic signal of surrender, the way it ends a battle with a larger, stronger animal. The best speed skaters are the athletes who hold on the longest against this beastly, inevitable exhaustion.
Away from the ice, when he's with his wife, Karin, and their two small sons and looking at you mildly through the steam from his espresso, Boucher's expression remains that of the hunt. He still drops his forehead. His eyes still roll up under his brow. It's as if he has not yet lifted his gaze to the world above the final turn.
Which is all for the best just now, because in February he must go out on the pearl-gray ice of Calgary's $38.9 million (U.S.) Olympic Oval and defend not only his Sarajevo medals but also his 1984 vow that he would not race in Calgary unless he could win again.
Boucher is 29. Calgary will be his fourth Olympics. Eric Heiden, his great rival and friend (Boucher got the 1,000-meter silver behind Heiden at the Lake Placid Games of 1980), is a month younger than Boucher, yet Heiden has been retired from skating for eight years. Boucher sustains both speed and career. He has won and that hasn't softened him. He has been hurt and that hasn't discouraged him. Accounting for this, he says simply, "I love the life."
If you know the life, you know much of the man. If you have known four to six hours a day of weights and intervals against brutal resistance on the stationary bike; if you have launched yourself back and forth across a slider-board until your ankles ached; if you have for the last four years trekked to a rink in Inzell, West Germany because your home ice in Canada wasn't frozen—then you know the life.
But you don't know it all. The life is hard and nomadic for a reason. "The purpose is to create the possibility of winning," Boucher says. "That's very special. I won a medal when I was quite young [the Canadian Junior National Championship at 15]. I learned what it was to be at the center of attention. I don't know if I would have continued if I'd not won then. I learned what it was to go to a race and hear everyone whisper, 'Watch this guy.' I've enjoyed what you call this difficult life all this time because I did not want to give up that possibility."
As far back as he can remember, the fierceness has been with him. "As a child I was always alone," he says. This was by choice, since he had two brothers and three sisters. "I wasn't lonely, simply alone, doing things by myself, to my standard." He played hockey, of course. What Québecois child does not? But he gave it up at 17, for classically individualistic reasons. "If you played well, you could still lose," he says. "I always gave 100 percent. I didn't like the other kids giving less. But I loved the skating, and there was a skating club, so I went to that."
His father, who worked as a claims appraiser for the Canadian National Railway, supported Gaetan in his seriousness. "We'll buy you skates," Cyranus Boucher said, "but you'd better not stop in two weeks."
Nearly two decades later, it's clear that Boucher's nature and the demands of speed skating simply coalesced. His bountiful energies let him withstand the sport's ferocious training, though it took some time for him to gain full control of his nerves. News accounts of him as a 21-year-old at the 1980 Olympics called him "the hypertense little French Canadian."