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Time After Time
Steve Rushin
February 07, 1994
In athletes anonymous, February is the coolest month
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February 07, 1994

Time After Time

In athletes anonymous, February is the coolest month

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Is it any surprise she should remember the family a decade later? After all, her own enormous Irish-Catholic family, now spread throughout the U.S., remains as tight as a Jim Kelly spiral.

Eleanor, her mother, has lined up housing in Norway for the 30 relatives and dozen or so assorted friends who will attend the Games. Randy Allen, a brother-in-law, has secured tickets. Sister Suzy is bulk-purchasing four dozen "team sweatshirts" for everyone to wear.

The speed skater is the youngest, by seven years, of six children raised in Champaign, Ill. As proud as they are of their little sister, one thing bothers the five older siblings. "It's that they're always referred to in articles as siblings," says the baby of the family. "I got a fax in Europe recently that was signed, 'From one of your siblings.' They always make comments like that. They get their digs at me, just to keep me on the level."

As a matter of fact the city of Champaign wanted to rename the busy street that runs in front of Centennial High School for its most famous alumna, its Olympic champion. But the champion's mother put the kibosh on it. Mom was concerned that too many people would have to change their addresses, so the city instead named a brand-new street for its Olympic champion. That was thoughtful of Mom. "Well," sighs the Olympic champion, "Mom's in real estate."

Byron wrote, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." That's what happens to Olympic heroes and heroines. That is what always happens to her, anyway. "You're competing over there," she says, referring to the French Alps or Scandinavia or the former Yugoslavia, "and you have no idea what people are seeing on TV over here. And then...."

Then it hits you, suddenly, like Don Johnson's bussing you as you leave the medals stand in Albertville. You return to the U.S. to brief white-hot fame. In the weeks after the last Olympics, the post office delivered a letter to her childhood home in Champaign. The envelope bore only her name and the words OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST. There was a smudged, illegible cancellation, canceling nothing. "There was no stamp" explains the letter's recipient. "There was a cancellation, so you know it went through the mails, but there was no stamp. No address, no stamp, and it got to my house."

You want fame? She is on a stamp, for Pete's sake, one issued incongruously by the island of St. Vincent in the West Indies. It all makes her more than a little uncomfortable. "Before they'll put you on a stamp in the United States," she says, "you have to be dead for a certain number of years."

Does St. Vincent know something that she doesn't?

Lord knows, it can sometimes seem as if she's dead between Olympics, so she finds herself having to get used to celebrity again. She sat with her mouth agape during a state dinner at the White House after the '88 Games. Vice-President George Bush approached her afterward and said, "I saw you kind of staring around the room during dinner. Sometimes, I can't believe I'm here, either."

"Sometimes I can't believe I'm here," confirms the speed skater today. "That basically tells it all."

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