Metro Detroit native Sheila Young-Ochowicz on the Olympics and the gold medal
As elite american athletes — but not government dignitaries! – Heading to China this month for the most controversial Olympics in decades, Sheila Young-Ochowicz, a three-time Olympic medalist in speed skating born in Birmingham and raised in Detroit, will watch from her home in Park City, in Utah. At 71, she is a world and nearly half a century away from the 1976 Games where, as a speed skater in Innsbruck, Austria, she became the first American athlete to win three medals in a only Winter Olympics.
Her achievement – gold in the 500 meters, silver in the 1,500 meters and bronze in the 1,000 meters – made her a star. A Sports Illustrated coverage, a box of Corn Flakes, a TV commentator concert, and a seat on the U.S. Olympics Host Committee for the 1980 Games in Lake Placid followed. In the 1970s she also won world championships in track cycling, but it was not an Olympic sport for women until long after her retirement or she could be even more heavily decorated. She pursued a college teaching career in Wisconsin and California.
When we spoke in November, I cradled my sometimes noisy 8-week-old daughter on my lap. Our conversation was very varied, but Young-Ochowicz, now a grandmother, offered probably the most unusual parenting advice I’ve heard: “I tell anyone who has a daughter that it’s really important that daughters do competitive things with dads. It’s really important to have this competitive relationship with a man. This will make her more successful in everything she does.
Hour Detroit: Your brother and husband competed as Olympic cyclists in the 1970s, and your daughter as a speed skater at three Winter Games. Your parents were also national champion athletes. How does your family become this Olympic dynasty?
Sheila Young-Ochowicz: I don’t know exactly what to answer. It all started in Detroit, Michigan, with parents who were competitive — and not just in sports. They instilled in my brothers, my sister and me that if you work hard it will pay off. I used to tell people, “I’m the best mom. I’m like a gold medal mother. I had supportive parents who nurtured my innate desire to be the best. It’s not necessarily that you’re going to make an Olympic team but that every time you go out on the starting line, or even at school, you do the best you can.
Did you skate a lot together?
Oh yes. We used to skate on Quarton Lake in
Birmingham. My parents used to pull out their cars and turn on their headlights so we could skate, and they would shovel the rink for us. My father thought: the family that plays together stays together.
Did you know then that you were training for the Olympic Games?
No no no no no. It was fun, I tell you. I started on figure skates having fun. It was a family thing for us, and I wasn’t very good at it. It was the feeling of skating and going fast that really drove me forward. I wasn’t very graceful, so I think the pleasure I got from it was just the pleasure of being able to do something and do it well.
What did you take away from your life in the Detroit area that propelled your career?
I’ll tell you exactly what. Farwell Field had the only outdoor rink in the United States at the time. It was a small rink, then they got a hockey rink. For competitions, they opened the hockey rink to enlarge the track. If we didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t have done speed skating. We would practice there. We would have ice cream before anyone else [in the country] had natural ice anywhere. That was the main thing. Also, in the Detroit area, we had several speed skating clubs — it was very competitive. It was the best.
Were the Olympic Games as important in 1976 as they are today?
Yes. In Europe, I was very famous. But then, in the United States, maybe not so much. In the United States, every four years you would see speed skating. That was about it. But in countries like Holland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, yes, in 1976 I had won the world championships and set world records.
This year, the Winter Olympics are taking place in China. How do you feel about that?
Personally, I wouldn’t want to compete there, although I wouldn’t boycott it. What the Chinese government has done and how it treats its people is not the way I would like them to behave. I tried to stop buying things from China, because I just don’t support this country. But the Olympics, wherever they take place, are very expensive. When I was working on Lake Placid, we were working on a shoestring, and it just got more expensive. They added more sports; they have more athletes to manage. If a country like China can organize these games, it’s good for everyone.
How have the Olympic Games changed?
Technology has changed so much. With streaming, you can watch anything at any time,
All that you want. When I competed in Japan
in 1972, I don’t think my dad got to watch it live. They just played parts of it on tape or something. Now you can watch every race live. It’s just amazing.
How does it feel to win a gold medal?
When I was on the podium and they were raising the American flag, if only you knew how good it is. I can only compare it to having your child. You’re like, “Oh my God, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
You were on a Wheaties box.
Do you still have it?
I do. I think I have two. My husband had a framed one, and it’s now in my pantry at our lake house in Wisconsin. We had to put it somewhere, and it’s just for fun. It came out in 1980.
Where are your Olympic medals?
In fact, I brought them to Wisconsin this summer, because my neighbor wanted to see them. But they’re here in Utah, in my closet, in their containers. They come in a box or whatever.
Do you ever have a reason to wear them?
No no. They’re not flimsy, but they took a lot of beatings because I used to do more conferences where I brought the medals and people touched them. Each gold medal only has a limited amount of gold on it, but it has a silver core. People touched it so much that it erased the gold in some places. So they’re just stored in my closet. I take them out from time to time. It really means a lot to some people.
And the Sports Illustrated blanket? You have you framed somewhere?
Uh, I’m not sure. If I do, I don’t know where it is.
How was it after all that fuss was over? Was it hard for you to adjust to not being so important?
No, but I missed the competition. I remember Caitlyn Jenner – then Bruce Jenner – saying after winning her medal that she was so happy she never had to run another stage. I think, “Whoa, that’s really sad, because I love skateboarding.” I always like to stroll around the rink.
How different was it to be at the Olympics when your daughter competed?
It was really difficult. I knew exactly how she felt every race. I felt every hit with her. It’s hard to watch because you can’t do anything. It’s up to them to decide.
Did your college students realize that their teacher was on a box of Corn Flakes?
No no no. I never made much of it. The year I quit teaching, I showed my seventh-grade class an ABC video, like a montage of my skating and my three Olympic medals. They had had me all year and never realized I had done this. I’m standing in the back of the room, and they’re all looking at the screen, and then looking at me and they’re like, “Whoa, is that the same person?” I no longer look like I was then. I have blond hair now, because of my grey, and then I had long black hair, and I didn’t have all the wrinkles.