SI Vault
Richard Demak
February 29, 1988
East Germany's Frank-Peter Roetsch was unruffled by the pressure of being favored
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February 29, 1988

The Coolest Under Fire

East Germany's Frank-Peter Roetsch was unruffled by the pressure of being favored

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Back before the targets for a third time, Roetsch was perfect. Thompson matched him a few minutes later, 5 for 5. While Thompson stayed even with Roetsch on the range, the East German was beginning to control the back trails. Roetsch's superior strength was coming into play as the snow melted.

Medvedtsev was the first of the leaders to come in for his fourth and final round of shots. He missed one, bringing his total for the four rounds to 2 misses out of 20 shots. That, combined with his speed on the course, put him in first.

As Roetsch prepared for his final try at the targets, a coach told him how far he was behind the leader, but not who that pacesetter was. It didn't matter; Roetsch missed just one target and pulled 15 seconds ahead of Medvedtsev.

Roetsch was now well beyond Thompson's reach, but still within sight was a chance for the best-ever finish by an American in an Olympic biathlon. After his third shooting round, Thompson was in fourth place, only two minutes behind the leader. Thompson could finish in the top 10 with a perfect final round of shooting.

He slid to a halt in front of the the targets and pulled his rifle from its harness on his back. The front of his bright blue and neon red uniform was wet with sweat and melted snow from his prone shooting. He stood motionless as he sighted in on the first target. Thompson squeezed off his shots—and missed three of the five targets. Shocked and frustrated, he set off on the final 2.5-km leg.

Thompson crossed the finish line, tears running down his cheeks. He took his gloves off and leaned against a fence. John Morton, the Dartmouth ski coach and U.S. biathlon team leader, came over and put his arm around him.

Afterward Thompson was at a loss to explain his lapse of concentration. But U.S. assistant coach Tracy Lamb understood. "He hasn't shot like this, even in practice," said Lamb. "The difference was pressure. Pressure we put on ourselves, and what was put on us. We want it so bad. For our sport, for our team, for ourselves."

In most sports, tension and adrenaline are advantageous. Coaches try to build a fire within their athletes that will burn most brightly at the moment of competitive stress. Yet, biathletes must train themselves to relax just as that moment approaches. Although Calgary is Thompson's second Olympics—in Sarajevo he did not compete in the 20-km and finished 40th in the 10-km race—he was still not wholly prepared for Olympian pressure.

Roetsch, a national hero in East Germany who last year told Lamb that he had to win "for my country," knows how to handle pressure. Medvedtsev, who won the silver, and Johann Passler of Italy, who took the bronze, are also accustomed to fulfilling expectations.

"Thompson did well when he wasn't the favorite," said Roetsch after the race. "Here he was a favorite and you see what happened." For an American competing in the biathlon, that sort of pressure is all too new.

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