There's no denying that the US Olympic hockey team was the ultimate Cinderella story at the 1980 winter games. Just as heartwarming, though, was the story of two Hungarian skaters, who almost produced their own miracle on ice only to miss -- narrowly -- winning a gold medal.
When Krisztina Regoczy and Andras Sallay returned to Budapest, they did so with their country's first winter medal since 1956.
Today, as featured performers with the combined Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice show, they are introduced as Olympic silver medalists and 1980 world ice dancing champions. While accurate, the "intro" just skims the surface of their fascinating story.
Olympic spectators got a glimmer of how special it is during the opening ceremonies of last winter's Lake Placid games. While phalanxes of athletes paraded behind many national placards, Krisztina and Andras, the only members of the Hungarian team, made for lonely standard-bearers.
Hungary has never made much of a dent at the Winter Olympics and probably never will. "There are no hills and no snow in our country," says Andras, only slightly exaggerating. In fact, Hungary, a nation smaller than Indiana, lies within the middle basin of the Danube River, and therefore is far flatter than neighboring Austria.
Winter sports activity is largely confined to recreational figue skating on outdoor rinks. To find the necessary coaching and practice facilities, serious skaters like Regoczy and Sallay may travel abroad.
They spent 12 summers in Richmond, England, training first under Roy Callaway and later his wife, Betty. The experience helps account for their command of the King's English, plus their emergence as world-class ice dancers.
The British, who enjoy a rich skating tradition, joined with Americans to launch ice dancing as a competitive discipline in the late 1940s.The '50s saw British skaters dominate the sport, which takes its lead from Viennese waltzes written more than a century ago. Couples execute original and set dance steps to music, but without the spectacularly high lifts that characterize pairs skating.
As with so many events, the USSR soon asserted itself, no doubt in anticipation of ice dancing becoming an Olympic sport, which it did in 1976. Having monopolized the world championships for a decade, the Soviet ice dancers entered the Lake Placid games as heavily favored as the hockey team.
With the only realistic hope of unseating the Russians, Regoczy and Sallay became darlings of the crowd with their charm and stylish interpretation of Hungarian folk dances.
For several years they nipped at the bootheels of various Soviet skaters, finishing second or third in every European and world championship from 1977 on. This time they would come agonizingly close, losing a razor-thin decision for the gold to the USSR's Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov by a mere 0.96 of a point. To some observers, the 5-4 split decision represented another case of questionable judging.
Despite the momentary sting, however, the Hungarian couple graciously accepted the outcome.
"We were a little disappointed to have come so close [to winning the gold], but pleased that we skated our best," Krisztina says.
"Skating for the audience has always been the main point of our skating," Andras adds. "It was great to hear the applause at Lake Placid. We didn't really think that much about our marks or the color of the medal."
Competitors that they are, Krisztina and Andras turned up at the world championships several weeks later and skated away with first place. To claim the title, they broke the Soviet stranglehold by beating Linichuk and Karposonov. Making it to this pinnacle is a fairy tale come true. As mentioned earlier, Hungary's winter sports heritage is nothing to write home about, even if you happen to live in Hodmezovasarhely or Szekesfehervar.
Before 1980, Hungary had won a less-than-grand total of five Olympic medals in winter competition, four bronzes, and a silver, all in pairs skating. The citizenry generally looks forward to the summer games, where Hungarian athletes pick off medals in sports such as Greco-Roman wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, and kayaking.
Of course, the Olympic incident that Americans probably most associate with Hungary was the infamous, fight- marred water polo game between Hungary and the Soviet Union in 1956. Emotions were running high at the time, since the Soviets had just suppressed a Hungarian revolution. Hungary won the water polo match, though, and eventually the gold.
There were no political overtones at Lake Placid, yet many observers sensed the Hungarians were somehow different from their Soviet counterparts. They are not the one- track performers many state-supported athletes seem to be. Krisztina has complete two years of dental studies, and Andras, an avid oil painter, is an antique dealer back home.
Their ability to "play" to the audience appealed to the ice shows, which aren't known for signing East Europeans.The Follies made the most attractive pitch, inking them to skate with the "silver unit," one of three separate traveling companies. Linda Fratianne is the superstar of this American- based troupe.
Through the cast is a big one, with more than 100 members, Krisztina and Andras find they miss seeing their former rivals, to say nothing of home. The pair, which returns to Budapest this summer, has been i n the United States since last April.
The two skaters enjoy a Tai-and-Randy type of relationship, like that of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. "it's not like a marriage," Andras says, groping for the right description. "You can't actually explain it, but it's more of a brother- sister sort of thing."
The two were first teamed in 1967 by the trainer of the Budapest Sports Club and have been skating together ever since. The 14th anniversary of their partnership occurred Feb. 17, a date Andras remembered with flowers.
They're not ones to forget special occasions or friends and practically insist that Robert Deri, the father-figure manager of the Budapest club, be mentioned in articles about them.
Show skating, they've found, has not been a lark. It means a different city and rink every other week, generally two and sometimes three performances a day, and plenty of late- night dinners.
On the ice the challenge is to get "up" for every show. "You do the same routine so many times that it almost becomes dangerous," Andras says. "You don't want to fall into a [mental] cocoon."
The thought of going through the motions, however, is alien to these likable skaters, who dance across the ice with all the energy of butterflies flittering across a sunlit meadow.