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THE GO-GO GIRLS OF SAPPORO
William Johnson
February 21, 1972
A trio of young Americans earned a gold medal each to ornament the best U.S. Winter Olympics effort in years. The men? A rare silver in hockey
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February 21, 1972

The Go-go Girls Of Sapporo

A trio of young Americans earned a gold medal each to ornament the best U.S. Winter Olympics effort in years. The men? A rare silver in hockey

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Three American beauty roses bloomed in the snowbanks of Hokkaido last week, some 11,000 miles from home. One was a ski racer from a farmhouse on the Winooski River in Vermont and two were speed skaters from the wealthy and now-renowned Chicago suburb of Northbrook. Altogether they won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze, and they made the final week of the XI Winter Olympiad a rare and unforgettable one for the United States. As usual, the Japanese had just the proper words to describe the girls: hakugin ni saita hana, which means "flower blossoms of the silvery snows," and subarashii, which means "beautiful and perfect."

Perhaps the most surprising blossom in the bouquet was Barbara Ann Cochran, 21, a gentle little blonde tiger, one of four children coached to world-class ski status by their exacting father, Gordon (Mickey) Cochran. Bursting out of a dense cloud bank that lay across the top of the course and running into a swirling snowstorm at the bottom, Barbara won the slalom on a steep and treacherous course at Mount Teine above the flats of Sapporo. And in beating the world she became the first American woman to win a skiing gold medal since Andrea Mead Lawrence won two of them 20 long years ago.

Though Barbara was considered a possible medalist, no one seriously thought her capable of stealing the gold from a strong field of French girls led by Mich�le Jacot, Britt Lafforgue, Florence Steurer and newcomer Dani�le Debernard. But after the first run Barbara was ahead of all the jeunes filles, although three of them were within a second of her lead time.

Then the weather thickened and Barbara slowly climbed the second course alone, intensely studying the snow at each gate. She was starting 15th this run, an important advantage because the piling new soft snow on the course would be packed by the time she pushed off. Shrouded in fog and snow at the top, she waited for her turn. "I tried not to think about my first run," she said, "but I didn't want to worry too much about the second. So I just decided that I would do my best, and even if I fell I would have that good first run to remember."

The weather was so soupy that Barbara could see only a few gates down-course when she launched into her start. Ahead of her, Debernard and Steurer had the best times. Lafforgue had fallen near the end of a powerful run that looked worthy of gold. Barbara slashed down the hill past hundreds of snow-covered Japanese clustered cheerfully along the sides. When she sped through the finish gate and her time flashed instantly on the electronic scoreboard the crowd gazed blankly at the numbers for a moment. Then there was a mighty bellow. A small band of U.S. women racers scampered over and engulfed Barbara in a damp embrace. Her brother, Bobby, and her boyfriend, slalomist Rick Chaffee, vaulted a fence and hoisted her to their shoulders. She had won, and she had won by the blink of an eye—by two-hundredths of a second.

When Barbara finally broke free from the swarm of fans to telephone her parents on the Winooski, it was two a.m. in Vermont. Barbara told her mother, "Hi. It's me. I didn't think you'd mind." Her mother and dad had watched her victory on live television, and when Mickey Cochran saw his daughter win a gold medal he had observed, "Well, it was almost perfect. But she did run it a little wide on the gates."

The skating victories of the ladies of Northbrook—the determined Dianne Holum, 20, and the lighthearted Annie Henning, 16—were more predictable but no less satisfying. Dianne's first race was at 1,500 meters, a most demanding event because European speed skaters, particularly the Dutch, practice it incessantly as preparation for all other distances. Dianne was paired with the Russian world champion, Nina Statkevich, who was considered her major rival. But there also were the Dutch to face—and there were rumors that the Russians had bred a new mystery skater who would sweep everybody off the ice.

At the start Dianne jumped away and was a full stride into the race before Statkevich got off the line. In the stands a raucous contingent of middle-aged Joe Colleges from Northbrook waved a large red banner and shouted, "Holum, Holum, rah, rah, rah." Dianne's father was desperately nervous and moved away from the Northbrook rooters to stand alone in an aisle. Each time his daughter skated past him below, he bellowed, "Come on, baby, come, baby." Dianne came on, with a strong and intelligent race, pacing herself perfectly against a bit of breeze, and her time was 2:20.85, a new Olympic record. But would it stand up?

Satisfied, Dianne skated around the inner oval after she finished, her hands clasped over her head, a radiant smile on her face. And though the wind dropped later, her time held good. The next three finishers were Dutch skaters, all of whom had to be a little chagrined since Dianne had done most of her training under a Dutch coach for the past two years. The Russian surprise entry proved to be nothing but a rumor and remained monumentally anonymous by finishing 14th.

Dianne's next event was the 1,000 meters, ordinarily her favorite, but by the time she skated the ice had turned to glue and she finished sixth—ahead of the Olympic mark but not good enough for a medal. Later she said, "I went into the race without any plan of how I would skate it." But when the 3,000-meter came up, she had a fine plan, indeed. She finished second, beaten only by the venerable Dutch housewife, Stien Baas-Kaiser, 34.

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