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There Will Be No Golden Harvest
E.M. Swift
November 21, 1983
Triumphant at Lake Placid, the U.S. speed skating team is divided and heading for disappointment in '84
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November 21, 1983

There Will Be No Golden Harvest

Triumphant at Lake Placid, the U.S. speed skating team is divided and heading for disappointment in '84

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Corby, 33, was hired in June 1980 to replace Holum, who resigned after five years as the U.S. co-coach, shortly before her daughter, Kirstin, was born. The top U.S. skaters at Lake Placid—the Heidens and the Muellers—had all moved on to other things, so the group Corby was working with was young and inexperienced. In the fall of '80 the team decided to train in the U.S. rather than in Europe and, because of refrigeration malfunctions, didn't skate regularly on the West Allis rink until Thanksgiving weekend. "That's like telling John McEnroe that he can only use his racket four months a year," says Corby. "The Russians skate every month except July and August. We could never catch up. So that was our last autumn in the U.S."

In 1981 Mueller, 29, who had spent the 1980-81 season guiding the Austrian national team, was hired to co-coach the U.S. team with Corby. The two of them had similar philosophies, worked closely and for the next two years sparred with increasing regularity with the USISA board over policy decisions. Among the issues debated were where to go in Europe—and when—for training and competition, and how to allocate funds for training camps and expenses. Another bone of contention was the size of the national team. Corby and Mueller wanted to cut back the number of skaters from the unwieldy 55 that qualify now. However, the two most powerful members of the board, Sandvig, who is program and development committee chairman, and Secretary William Cushman, opposed the change. Complicating this dispute was the fact that both Sandvig and Cushman were in conflict-of-interest situations, since Sandvig's 22-year-old daughter, Susan, and Cushman's son, Tom, 19, were both on the national team. "Their kids were always borderline, always around place 25 or 28," says Mueller. "The fathers start making rules to benefit these two kids so they could go to Europe and to training camp. It's a big farce. We have a handful of skaters who are really good and then there is a big drop-off. Since the association has no money to begin with, we just cut everything really thin."

In defense of the two board members, it should be pointed out that both Holum and Corby consider Tom Cushman to be one of the most promising young skaters on the team. Sandvig denies the charges of nepotism. "We think we should take care of the masses rather than a select group," he says. "Look what happened in 1980. All the skaters that did win medals quit the sport. You've got to be developing young skaters so you'll have someone coming up the line."

Ideally, the solution is to have an elite traveling team of perhaps 20 members, and a separate development team with its own coach. That's the system used in other leading speed skating countries. That of course requires money, and USISA is even shorter on money than it is on harmony. It lost its only corporate sponsor after the 1980 Olympics and now operates on an annual budget of some $200,000, 90% of which is provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee. "What George Howie has done in terms of fund raising has been done so...well, let's just say that he didn't have a chance of succeeding," Corby says. "He can't even get his organization together to ask Heiden to contribute."

Incredible but true, Heiden, who's now a pre-med student at Stanford, has never been directly approached by Howie about fund raising for the speed skating team. The only time Heiden was asked for help was when a skater, 24-year-old Mike Plant, requested it. Heiden responded by helping to persuade Atari Inc. to contribute to the training expenses of a handful of the top skaters, a commitment of some $225,000 over three years. Asked why he has not personally appealed to Heiden for help, Sandvig replies, "Why blame us? I think that he has some responsibility, too. Why can't he come forward and offer to help? He knows our situation."

If the purpose of keeping 55 skaters on the national team was to help develop young talent, the plan failed. On the ice, the only U.S. skaters who showed improvement on the international level under Mueller and Corby were the men sprinters. Thometz went from sixth place overall in the 1982 World Sprint Championships to fourth in 1983 and stands a chance to come away with a medal in the 500 or 1,000 at Sarajevo. Erik Henriksen, 24, the self-described Muhammad Ali of speed skating, improved from 11th to sixth overall. Henriksen has a picture of himself with Ali that was taken last year on a transatlantic flight, at which time Henriksen exuberantly told Ali, "You're the greatest in boxing, and I'm the greatest in speed skating." Well, maybe not, but Henriksen will be a dark horse in both the 1,000 and 1,500. The rest of the U.S. team has been a disaster. With the possible exception of Mary Docter—a long shot in the 3,000—the U.S. women have virtually no chance of winning a medal in Sarajevo.

Differences between Corby, Mueller and Sandvig came to a head last February when Sandvig, who was on the U.S. Olympic speed skating squad in 1952, '56 and '60, traveled to Europe to "help" with the world championships. "He didn't come over to help," claims Corby. "He came over on an evidence-gathering mission to find out if the skaters were happy."

Sandvig denies this. "That wasn't my purpose," he says. "One of our skaters, Nancy Swider, came up to me after the worlds and said the girls were very frustrated with the coaching. Naturally I was concerned. The only other skater I talked to was Thometz, and I asked him during a bus ride if he had been working with Bob and if we had a coaching problem."

Thometz, who defended Corby and Mueller, later told his coaches of the exchange. Upset that Sandvig had gone behind their backs at such a critical stage in the season, Corby and Mueller resigned during the World Sprint Championships banquet on Feb. 27. The resignation was accepted; a USISA board member later approached Holum and asked her to apply for the Olympic job.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as simple as slam, bam, don't-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-can, Messrs. Corby and Mueller. "If you switch football coaches in the middle of the season, the players have no choice but to stick with the second coach," says Sandvig. "But we don't have that sort of power."

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