Syracuse, N.Y. — Short-lived retirements are nothing unusual in sports. Muhammad Ali has made a history of them. What is unusual is when an athlete who's been out of action returns at the same high level. That's exactly what Sheila Young Ochowicz is attempting to do, not in one sport, but two, speed skating and cycling.
Of the 2,500 athletes competing in 33 sports at the National Sports Festival, she is easily the most decorated. Many participants at this between-Olympics showcase for US amateurs dream of competing in the games. Sheila has been there twice, in 1972 and 1976, and won three speed skating medals -- a gold, silver, and bronze -- all in '76 at Innsbruck.
Wearing a full-length bodysuit with a bathing caplike hood, she was dubbed "Frogman Sheila" four years before Eric Heiden, winner of five speed-skating gold medals, gained fame as "The Man in the golden Suit."
She was extended a hero's welcome upon her return to Detroit, but soon slipped quietly into retirement. She married construction worker Jim Ochowicz (pronounced Ok-a- witz), a member of two US Olympic cycling teams, then gave birth to a daughter, Katie, three years ago.
Her name might have been forgotten if she hadn't worked for the Lake Placid Organizing Committee and as an ABC-TV commentator at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Now it has surfaced again, though somewhat camouflaged by her husband's surname. And instead of racing on skates here, she strapped her feet onto the pedals of a bike to complete in a 50 kilometer road race and a 28.8 kilometer criterium ( a multilap event over a short closed course).
The experience was hardly new, since she won the world cycling sprint championship in 1973. She captured the sprint skating title that same year, making her one of the few athletes ever to hold world championships in two sports simultaneously.
Because the same leg muscles and bent- over, restricted breathing position are utilized in both sports, the athlete who excels in one frequently keeps in shape competing in the other. Sheila was only one of several speed skater-cyclists pedaling here. Beth Heiden, the 1980 world road champion, Sarah docter, and Connie Carpenter were others.
When asked why she had come out of retirement, Sheila pulled out that old cliche -- love of the sport. In her case, though, it rings true. Money simply isn't an incentive for a comeback in speed skating or cycling.
Neither is a slim hope of making history by becoming the first American woman to compete in both summer and winter Olympics. Women's cycling will be on the program for the first time at Los Angeles in 1984, but Sheila doesn't see herself making the team.
"They'll have women's cycling, but not my discipline -- sprinting on a track, " she said.
Her festival results reflected this preference for generating sudden bursts of speed. In the longer road race she finished well out of the running, but in the criterium, where points are awarded within the race for sprints to designated spots, she came in third.
Sheila's comeback began in a low key, but escalated rapidly. "I started training just to get back in condition, and one thing led to another," she said. "Eventually I decided to try some old speed skating workouts."
The next step was competition. Admittedly she had second thoughts before her return to international speed skating in Inzell, West Germany, last winter. "I was kind of afraid of being embarrassed," she said, "but I knew I shouldn't be since I wanted to get back for myself and didn't care what others thought."
After an encouraging result, doubts again surfaced right before she toed the line at the world championships in Grenoble, France.
"After warming up I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what am I doing here?' she recalled. "My goal was to place among the top 10, but when I saw some of the other skaters' times I got really scared. I did exceedingly well, though, managing seventh. Considering that I hadn't skated competitively or done much of anything for five years, I felt like patting myself on the back."
It was this long hiatus and not her age (30). Sheila said, that has made her comeback such a challenge. "If I hadn't stopped to have a baby," she remarked, "I'd probably be in real good shape now."
She has no regrets, though about the path of her private life. She has willingly readjusted her athletic goals to accommodate home responsibilities, which include making sure Katie gets to preschool and swimming lessons. "I'm just not going to spend five hours a day training any more," she said, indicating she's satisfied to go as far as limited training will take her.
Sheila says her husband has been especially supportive of her comeback, often babysitting while she practices. During the cycling season, though, he travels extensively as manager of the 7-11/schwinn cycling team for which Eric Heiden and Sheila's brother. Roger, both ride.
As a result, she generally takes Katie with her on trips. "I get someone to watch her while I'm racing, but she really wants to race, too," observed Sheila, whose father and mother were once cyclists.
The child already wears a cycling jersey and shorts and rides a bike with training wheels. But will she ever follow her fearless mother and race downhill at 60 m.p.h. or tire- to-tire around a steeply inclined velodrome?
"We're not going to encourage her," said Sheila. Of course, if Mom's actions speak louder than words, there'll be no keeping Katie off the track.