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Alighting from her navy Jeep Cherokee, she walks unnoticed into a Ground Round restaurant near the new U.S. speed skating training center in suburban Milwaukee. Quaffing water as if she were operated by hydraulics ("I have drug testing after lunch and I want to be able to go," she says), she considers the '94 Winter Olympics and the athletic career that will soon be coming to its gold-capped conclusion.
"There's going to be a point where I'm not going to be able to go any faster," she says. "I still might be the best, but if I can't accomplish many more things, then it's probably time to move on."
One table over, an eavesdropper's neck corkscrews like rotini pasta when this small woman mentions the two Olympic medals she keeps in a bank in Champaign and the two others that she keeps in a bank in Milwaukee (where she now lives). The eavesdropper's feet face north, his torso west, his eyes turned south in a painful attempt to eyeball the speaker.
"Years ago I would have never thought all this would have happened," the speed skater says laughing at the eavesdropper's contortions. "Yeah, I always loved to skate. I always loved to go to the rink, to go to meets. But I never would have dreamt it would result in...in dinner at the White House."
That may tell it all: Life after the Olympics is dinner at the White House. Life the rest of the time is lunch at The Ground Round. She takes another bite of her French Dip.
It sounds apocryphal, the story of her birth. The tale has been told again and again, but it surely can't be true. Her dad, Charlie, who had fathered four speed skaters, was timing a meet in Yonkers, N.Y., on March 18, 1963, when his wife gave birth. The public-address announcer told the crowd that was attending the meet, "Looks like Charlie's family has just added another skater." That baby became the greatest U.S. woman speed skater who ever lived.
It sounds made up. "I know," laughs the greatest U.S. woman speed skater who ever lived. "But it's true." Charlie, a retired civil engineer, died on Christmas Day 1989. Two days before Christmas he had watched his youngest daughter skate. Forget the fame for a moment. All that daughter ever really wanted out of skating, she once said, was to create the wind around her. All that daughter ever wanted out of skating was to skate.
Recently in training I was paired with some kid in the 500," she says. "A guy. He was probably in high school. Sometimes I'll pick out a guy whose time is similar to mine and race him. Anyway, I beat this guy. and I figured he was probably embarrassed because he was beaten by a girl, and his friends were going to give him a hard time, and...."
She skated over to console the young man, to let him know that there was really no reason to be ashamed, that the girl who had just beaten him was in fact....
"Hey," said the kid, smiling broadly, before she had a chance to say any of this. "I just got beat by the fastest woman in the world!"