ALBERTVILLE, France -- The U.S. women's 3,000-meter relay team in short track skating produced a wholly unexpected medal in the Albertville Olympics yesterday, the silver, and missed the gold that Canada won in a world record time of 4 minutes, 36.62 seconds by 1.23 seconds.
It was the eighth medal won by the American team at these Games, matching the total of eight years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. At the 1988 Calgary Games, the United States won just six medals.
For a sport in which teamwork is critical and mistakes potentially dangerous, the U.S. effort might easily have been forgettable, or even disastrous. The team had only one competition in preparation for the Olympics, last month in Lake Placid, N.Y.
"I'm just overjoyed," said Cathy Turner, the 29-year-old star of the team from Rochester, N.Y., a woman so dedicated to the sport she gave up a career as a lounge singer. "I knew if we could make it out of the heats, we had a good chance."
The sport is relatively simple. One skater from each of four teams of four starts zooming around the ice. A substitute can enter at any time, simply by placing herself in front of the current zoomer, who starts her off by pushing her back side.
The United States made 19 such exchanges, with Turner starting, coming in and out five times and finishing 4.84 seconds ahead of the final skater from the Unified Team, the former Soviet Union.
For Turner the road to Albertville has had more than a few twisting curves. She was an avid skater and songwriter in 1980, when she won an audition for a show in Las Vegas, Nev.
She untied her skates and dropped everything else, picked up a wardrobe that included "high heel shoes that hurt my feet," bought a load of makeup and hit the road, singing in hotels, dance halls and night clubs under the name, "Niki Turner" or "Niki Newland."
She never actually made it to Las Vegas.
"Mostly to places in the Midwest," she said. "Illinois, Virginia. OK, Virginia's not the Midwest. But Michigan."
For eight years, she took any work she could find, and that included singing lead, backup, whatever, to rock music, jazz, big band songs,show tunes, 40s music, revues. Once, she worked in a studio used by Barbra Streisand and another time in one used by Stevie Nicks.
She wrote music, as well, and in time, she got a few breaks, writing music that HBO used for some of its sports programming. Other projects are in the works, but as the Calgary Olympics came and went, she felt an emptiness inside.
"I'm an athlete at heart; something was missing," she said, and that meant only one thing, a comeback.
For the next three years, she skated diligently and won the silver medal at the 1989 World University Games, placed 10th a year later in the world championships after winning five events in the U.S. world team trials. Last year, she made the team again and was sixth in the 1,500-meter event at the championships in Australia.
With the Albertville Games approaching, she was ecstatic, skating by day, writing and singing by night. The perfect life. Only one problem threatened the arrangement.
"When I started skating again," she said, "I wanted to keep calling myself Niki. But I couldn't. Nobody would have known me."