Singer-speed skater takes the inside track to Games


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Inside an arena that looks like the lunar landing module, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter is skating in circles, throwing elbows, clicking blades, and exchanging the nastiest looks with the reigning world champion, all while goading a crowd that sounds a little like your average Wrestlemania throng.

Why, you'd think you were watching another Bay Area Bomber on a Roller Derby jam.

But this is the Winter Olympics, and Cathy Turner, a petite, 29-year-old fireball from Rochester, N.Y., has found her identity in another of these new, full-medal trash sports that keep popping up in Albertville.

The event is called short-track speed skating. Purists will tell you that any resemblance to Roller Derby is purely coincidental.

But for competitors such as Turner, the sport is no made-for-television joke. It's a go-for-gold sprint to stardom.

"I tell people that this is kind of like a track meet on ice, or a horse race, or a car race," Turner said. "There is always an element of danger."

Saturday night, Turner will appear in the knock-down, drag-out race of the Games, the women's 500-meter short-track championships. To win the gold, she'll have to survive quarterfinal and semifinal heats, and then emerge as the champion in a head-banging five-woman final sprint.

But she has traveled a longer road to the Games. Walker quit her sport for eight years, dumping her skates in a closet in 1981 to pursue a singing career with the Joel Dane Show. She even took a stage name, Niki Newland. She also gave water skiing and body building a try, earned a blue belt in tae kwon do and filled a drawer at home with NASTAR regional ski-racing medals.

But in between her stints on stages, and in gyms, Walker was searching for her identity.

"I went from skating in sweats to singing in evening gowns and high heels," she said.

She enjoyed the singing career, but each time the Olympic year rolled around, she grew depressed and just a bit envious of her former friends who were skating on ovals.

"I was so confused, that I would cry," she said. "I'd take it out on other people."

Finally, after watching the 1988 Summer Olympics, she decided to quit the stage and return to the rink. She traveled to the indoor speed skating facility in Calgary, Canada, and resumed training.

"I showed up with two bags and a pair of skates," she said. "Anyone who would have seen me would have thought that I was crazy. But didn't care. I wanted to race."

Her goal was simple: Make the first Olympic team to race for medals.

After joining the U.S. team in September 1988, she was a silver medalist in the 1989 World University Games. She was the first woman to win all five events at the World Team Trials in 1990. She was the top U.S. performer at the 1991 World Championships in Australia and holds the U.S. records in the 500 meters (48.4 seconds) and the 1,000 meters (1:43.2). She is considered a favorite to win the gold medal in the 500 meters on Saturday.

Short-track may not get much respect, but it's the foundation of the long-track events. Stars of the oval, such as double gold-medalist Bonnie Blair, got their starts cutting tight corners on hockey-sized rinks.

All the short-track skaters wear helmets and gloves, and some even have knee pads. They weave in packs like a bunch of good ol' boys at Daytona, and as they make their turns, they touch down to the ice with one hand for balance.

And then, they blast off down the straightaways.

"This is not a trash sport," said Andy Gabel, the top American men's skater, who was eliminated in Tuesday's heats. "This is a lot harder than it looks. To win a world championship, you have to win 18 races in four days. This takes speed, strength, skill and intelligence."

Turner, who is 5 feet 2, 120 pounds, is the sport's Evel Knievel. She is dangerous. She either wins or crashes -- whichever comes first.

"I go all out," she said.

In Tuesday's heats, she elbowed reigning world champion Sylvie Daigle and knocked her right out of the Olympics.

"That was the most amazing victory I've seen in a decade," Gabel said. "I can't believe Sylvie Daigle didn't make it out of the heats."

But Turner is a tough cookie who won't crack. Others laughed when she went back to the track. Now, she is aiming for a gold. Tonight, she'll race leadoff for the United States in the 3,000-meter relay. But Saturday night, she'll skate for herself, trying to create a gold-medal melody.

"When I told people that I was skating I got negative reaction," she said. "Everyone thought I was kind of avoiding life. But every year I got better and better. To me, this is life, this is real."

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