Visit to Olympus

Some dreams die hard. For eight years following my college graduation I had a secret desire either to qualify for the Olympic trials in the marathon or to make the National Team in cross-country skiing. From what I've seen, desires of this nature afflict two groups of athletes: those who showed great promise in college, and those who showed almost none at all. In race after race, the latter finish toward the back of the pack but leave college feeling they have some great untapped potential, that if they simply keep at it and work hard enough, the world will finally sit up and take notice. Until a year ago, I was among them.

Though this secret ambition was largely repressed while I was holding down a normal job, it flared up in earnest once I left in order to write a filmscript about - guess what? - someone who quits work in a bid to make the US National Cross-Country Ski Team and against all odds. . . . The problem was I could never quite figure out how to end it. After ''going for broke'' (the script's working title), did the main character make it or didn't he? Was the glory in achieving the goal or simply in having given all to achieve it? The more I wondered, the more convinced I became that to get an answer I would simply have to find out for myself.

So one night I called my old coach, who had been Nordic Program Director for the National Team, and asked what exactly it would take for someone in my situation to go all the way. His reaction wasn't exactly reassuring. He laughed - long and loudly. Then when he finally calmed down, he asked, ''What are you trying to prove, Bill?''

''I want to find out just how good I can get,'' I told him. ''Ten years from now I don't want to be wondering still what would have happened 'if only.' ''

First of all, he was kind enough to explain dry-land training alone wouldn't do the trick. To compensate for my major weakness - lack of on-snow training - I would need to ski on glaciers for several weeks during the summer, find some way to ski the entire month of November, and of course ski every day all winter. There would be no way, however, to tell whether or not the investment was paying off for at least two years. I thanked him and hung up. There was absolutely no way to take his advice - not unless I wanted to become single once again and deeply in debt. That this realization should dawn on me may well have been his intent.

That summer, however, while at graduate school in Vermont, I ran up and down lots of mountains, just the way I imagined National Team guys would. Then in September, a friend told me he had just quit his job at a bank to give skiing his all for a year and see what happened. (Talk about life imitating art!) To start off, in fact, he was spending the month of November training with the National Team in Labrador City, Newfoundland.

That night it hit me - with my script stalled, why not write an article about the Team's fall training camp? Why not, in fact, ski with them and then tell in George Plimptonlike fashion what it was like? Six weeks later my friend met me with his pickup at the airport - a paved-over patch of taiga - and drove me through a snowstorm to the trail network in Lab City. We clipped on our skis and headed up into the spruce and birch forest where, shrouded in the still-falling snow and fading light, the Team was helping to pack and shovel the course. As one by one we came upon them, I felt like Odysseus or Aeneas groping across the Elysian fields. There was Mike Gallagher, three-time Olympian and now head coach , Stan Dunklee and Doug Peterson, veterans of the debacle at the Lake Placid Olympics, and others. There were also dryads in the form of shy, slender girls from the Canadian Team who would flash a smile as they darted past into the gathering, snowblinding darkness.

For almost a week the skiing could not have been better - fresh powder at night and bright blue skies all day. And life was so elementary - up to the warming hut by 9:00, twice around the nine-mile loop and back by 11:30, lunch, a nap, then back up to the trails by 2:00 and twice more around the course before my ride left at 4:30. Afterwards, a hot shower back in the barracks, an episode of Leave it to Beaver in the lounge, then out to dinner at a local restaurant. Evenings, I would prowl the corridors in search of interview prospects, corner them as they munched things like dates smeared with peanut butter, and grill them about what it was like to be on the Team. I heard both about the thrill of night races in Finland before packed stadiums and about the monotony of training and more training, of racing and recovering, of endless rides to yet another version of the same motel.

Shortly before I left, Mike Gallagher, the coach, called a time trial - an informal race that furnishes a rough idea of how everyone is stacking up. For the women, the race would consist of one lap around a three-mile course. The men would be required to do two laps. I decided at first I would just take pictures, but Mike and his assistant finally talked me into taking part. We took off uphill at thirty second intervals. Only one person started after I did, the legendary Bill Koch. It was almost thrilling to glimpse him bound past me. It was not so thrilling to take a spill in full view of the coaches and previous finishers as I came off a bump on the last downhill. On the whole, though I didn't feel I'd done too badly. When I noticed, however, that Mike's reaction to my performance wasn't exactly one of amazement, I took a look at the results. Not only had all the men beaten me by several minutes - even my ex-banker friend - but nearly all the women had skied their one lap faster than I had my first.

On the flight back to Montreal, I sat next to one of the girls who had beaten me. Although a top contender for a spot on the World Championships squad, she was going home early. She had had enough, she told me - enough of regimentation and constantly looking over her shoulder to see who might beat her out. For too many people in her situation, she said, happiness and self-worth were on the line in every race. She needed something to fall back on, she explained, and wasn't rejoining the Team until she had found it.

That winter marked the beginning of my changed attitude toward racing. That it was a chance to be with friends took on more importance. To be sure, with each race I kept and still keep ''pushing the envelope'' - challenging my limitations - but without distracting visions of someday vaulting to the top. Obviously, I still write, though if I never have a feature-length screenplay produced, that will be okay. Doing better the things I love doing, even just getting to do them at all, seems for now to be enough.

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