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Yes, Eric and Beth Heiden have hung up their skates, but that doesn't leave the U.S. in a bind for speed skaters capable of bringing in the next harvest of medals. In the Midwest, the hotbed of speed skating (if hotbed is the right term), where cities such as Madison, Wis., the Heidens' hometown, are hard by lakes that freeze over on cue at Christmas, it has become a tradition for each successive age group to move up to the world-class ranks and replace yesterday's heroes.
And here comes the latest pair of tough kids out of Madison, sisters named Mary and Sarah Docter. Mary is 21, 5'6", 130 pounds and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin; Sarah is 17, 5'7", 125 pounds and a senior at James Madison Memorial High. Both started skating at an early age on Madison's Lake Mendota, literally in their backyard, and now they are America's best all-around women speed skaters. (All-around women compete in two sprints, the 500 and 1,000 meters, and in two distance events, the 1,500 and 3,000 meters.) They're also the U.S.'s best hopes, male or female, for becoming prolific winners in international competition—including the '84 Olympics. (Last weekend at the women's world championships in Inzell, West Germany, Sarah finished a disappointing fifth overall, Mary was 12th.)
Mary is technically the better skater; Sarah is more talented and far more competitive. As a consequence, Sarah, though younger, is the No. 1 all-around woman in the country; Mary is No. 2. They finished first and second in the last two women's national team trials. They both laugh a lot and have absolutely dazzling teeth, but when they get down to racing, they hardly speak to each other.
At last year's worlds in Quebec City, Sarah was the surprise of the two-day meet, winning three bronze medals, for finishing third in the 1,000, and the 3,000 and for placing third overall, behind the Soviet Union's Natalia Petruseva and East Germany's Karin Enke, both Olympic gold medalists in 1980.
Mary started off the 1981 world championships with an atrocious 500 meters, placing 24th in a field of 30, and finished 12th overall. Still, Sarah never spoke a word of comfort—in fact, not a word at all—to her sister during the competition. And when Sarah stood on the podium to receive her bronze for the all-around, Mary watched from the stands, tears running down her cheeks. They were not tears of joy for her sister's triumphs.
"At a competition we totally avoid each other, or we would just snap at each other all the time," says Sarah. "Mary is just another competitor then. That's pretty cold, but I have to look at it that way. I don't want to ride in a car with her. I don't want to go jogging with her."
"When we get off the ice," says Mary, "it's almost harder to be friends with each other than with other competitors. It's hard for me to congratulate her."
"If I borrow her sharpening stone," says Sarah, "she gets mad."
"If she borrows something and then doesn't put it back, I get mad," snaps Mary.
Because of this rivalry between the siblings, the U.S. team coaches, Bob Corby and Peter Mueller, the Olympic 1,000-meter champion in 1976, usually avoid putting the Docters on the starting line together. But one day last December, in a time trial over 3,000 meters, it happened, almost by oversight. (The 3,000 is the only distance at which Mary can still beat Sarah—sometimes. At the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, she took a respectable sixth place in the event; Sarah finished 10th.) It was a typically cold and windy morning at the West Allis, Wis. rink, which has the only international-size (400 meter) oval now in operation in the U.S.; the one at Lake Placid isn't being used. The open rink sits beside a freeway, exposed to chilling north winds and dulled by dirt that blows in from Milwaukee.