Lake Placid, N.Y. — It was alchemy on ice. Everything the US hockey team touched turned ulitmately to gold. Their trademark was simple: come-from-behind. And that approach seemed, in fact, to characterize the whole American effort in this year's Winter Olympics.
An almost unimaginable victory over the mighty Soviet Union climaxed the hockey story, and the courageous group of young collegians who pulled off that upset made the storybook ending complete with a 4-2 victory over Finland for the gold medal Sunday as the 13 days of competition came to an end.
Speed skating superstar Eric Heiden's fifth gold medal along with silvers by skier Phil Mahre and figure skater Linda Fratianne -- all coming in the last three days -- also helped Americans forget their earlier frustrations and end up on one of the most euphoric notes any US team has ever enjoyed at the Winter Games.
But it was the hockey triumphs, of course, that pushed the American athletes, officials, and spectators to these new heights of excitement. First, on Friday evening, came the wildly improbable 4-3 victory over the USSR -- a game in which the Americans had come from behind three times to tie the score and then won it on a late goal by Mike Eruzione plus the spectacular goaltending of Jim Craig. Then on Sunday, with the gold medal theirs for the taking, the young US skaters twice fell behind Finland. Refusing to lose their poise, however, and cheered on by a widly partisan crowd in the Olympic Ice Arena, they came back each time to tie. Finally, with 13:55 left in teh game Rob McClanahan scored what proved to be the winning goal, Mark Johnson added a short-handed tally a few minutes later, and this team had duplicated the feat of the 1960 squad which defeated the USSR in Squaw Valley for only other US Olympic hockey gold medal.
The spectacular finish enabled the US to match its best previous medal showing at a Winter Olympics with six golds, four silvers, and two bronzes -- exactly the same totals the Americans had in 1932 when the games also were held here. It was also more than enough to erase the sense of frustration felt up until then by a US contingent whose spirits had been flying at half-mast entering the final three days of competition.
Up to that point, very little appeared to be going right for Uncle Sam. On paper the Americans had seemed likely to exceed their 1932 total, and maybe even to win as many as 21 medals, but by Friday morning the count stood at only eight.
Moreover, when the Americans did make headlines, it was usually for the wrong reasons. First there was the saddening withdrawal of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, reigning world champions, from the figure skating pairs competition because of an injury to Gardner. Then a disillusioned Beth Heiden, Eric's sister, released her pent-up emotions at a press conference after nailing down her only medal. The bobsledders soon followed with an in-house squabble.
As if all this weren't enough, Americans also discovered that their pre-Olympics hopes had been unrealistically high in the Nordic and Alpine events.
The only person who seemed to be holding up his end of the bargain was Heiden , or Eric the Gold as he came to be known. Even before the final big US weekend he had skated to gold medals in the 500, 1,000, 1500, and 5,000 meters, and needed just one more victory -- in Saturday's exhausting 10,000 -- to make his monopoly complete.
Speed skater Leah Mueller, an Olympic veteran who came out of retirement for one last hurrah, actually broke the ice, capturing the first American medal, a silver in the women's 500. She added another in the 1,000. Throw in bronzes won by Beth Heiden in the 3,000 and Charles Tickner in the men's figure skating and you are looking at the total US take with just 72 hours left.
The first auspicious note came Friday at Whiteface Mountain, when Mahre took the lead in the slalom after the first of two runs. Because Phil had broken an ankle on this same mountains less than a year ago, there were doubts that he could vie for any hardware here. He was the men's big hope, though, having finished third in last season's World Cup standings.
When Mahre's second descent wasn't as quick, Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark grabbed his second gold with a better combined time. Mahre, thus lost his chance to become the first US male skier ever to win an Olympic gold medal, but even his silver was noteworthy in a sport where American men historically have not fared well. And as things turned out this year, Mahre was the only American skier -- Alpine or Nordic, male or female -- to go home with more than memories.
Cindy Nelson, who prevented a US Alpine shoutout in 1976 with a bronze in the downhill, managed nothing better than a seventh this time (Heidi Preuss's fourth in the downhill led the US women's charge). In the Nordic events, where observers wrongly concluded the US had arrived after Bill Koch's silver medal in 1976, Uncle Sam was not a factor. Koch's best finish was a 13th in the 50 kilometers; Walter Malmquist took 12th in the Nordic combined (cross-country skiing and jumping), and Jim Denney flew to a 7th in the 90-meter jump.
If the Olympics produced a shot heard 'round the world it was certainly the one Eruzione drilled into the Soviet Goal Friday night.
In theory, the USSR's Big Red Hockey Machine was invincible, a grim reaper on blades that had outscored its first three Olympics opponents -- Japan, the Netherlands, and Poland -- by a combined score of 41-5 and had gone on to sweep its five-game preliminary section.
the last time a US team had beaten the Russians was at Squaw Valley in 1960. That was considered an upset, and since then the Soviets have just gotten stronger and stronger. In fact, many of the players on the Soviet Olympic team were the squad that embarrassed the National Hockey League All-Stars in last year's Challenge Cup.
Individually, however, no one approached Heiden as a superstar of these games. "I thought five gold medals were out of the question," he admitted after completing his sweep of the men's speed skating events, thus becoming the first competitor ever to win five individual golds in a single Winter Olympics.
Eric had to cop his fifth medal the hard way, the skating the 10,000 meters ( 6.2 miles) after holding off the rest of the world in the shorter distances. In his Olympic finale he reached back for every ounce of energy left in his powerful legs to break the world record by more than six seconds.
Fratianne, the last gold medal hope of a strong US figure skating team that had looked prior to the Olympics as though it might win as many as three, turned in a brilliant performance in Saturday night's free skating program, her strength, yet it wasn't quite enough to overtake her chief rival, Annet Potzsch of East Germany.
In the bobsled, an event in which the Americans had hoped to reclaim some of their former glory after falling far behind the Europeans in recent years, the best finishes they could manage were fifth and sixth places in the two-man sleds driven by Howard Siler and Brent Rushlaw respectively. The top US four-man sled , driven by Bob Hickey and including former Olympic hurdle champion Willie Davenport, was 12th.
In two events where the US is traditionally weak, luge and biathlon (a combination of target shooting and cross-country skiing), little was expected or delivered. Jeff Tucker's 12th in the men's luge and Martin Hagen's 36th in the biathlon were the top individual efforts by Americans.