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Mike Downey

WINTER OLYMPICS : Nelson's Best Shot Comes With a Flag

February 14, 1988|Mike Downey

CALGARY, Canada — At 6, his fantasies were of ski poles and Daisy air rifles, not fishing poles and Louisville baseball bats. He was a pink-cheeked snowchild from a 1,000-inhabitant Idaho town that was becoming something of an unplanned Olympic village, which was home to 10 different skiers who would go to the Games, and already he was out there among them, striding and gliding in regional competitions.

At 18, as the war was escalating in Vietnam, Idaho Sen. Frank Church sponsored his appointment to West Point, where he wrestled, and boxed, and played some tight end on the football team. He tried his hand at orienteering, during which a willing subject might be stranded in the middle of remote woods, furnished with little else but a compass, then entrusted to find his way back home.

At 27, he was an Army infantry officer, and an accomplished marksman and skier, and was making his first appearance in the biathlon of the Winter Olympics. At 31, he had a master's degree from USC to go with his bachelor's degree from the service academy, and was making his second appearance in the Winter Olympics.

At 35, he had begun work toward his doctorate at the Fielding Institute of Santa Barbara, studying human developmental psychology, and was making his third appearance in the Winter Olympics.

At 39, Lyle Nelson expected to be someplace else, doing something else, doing practically anything else, rather than find himself bearing the flag of the United States in the Opening Ceremony of his fourth Winter Olympics.

It was all a little unreal, particularly to a pragmatist such as Nelson, a man who says things such as: "I'm not willing to be broke to pursue the Olympic dream. I'm 39. I'm married. I still have studies. I'm not willing to sacrifice any more, to ride around in a 1963 Buick Electra or something because I can't afford anything else. If it's my mother's 75th birthday, and she lives on the other side of the country, I want to be able to fly there and be with her, not be too broke to buy a ticket."

He has been there, you see. Through one Olympics, through two, through three, Nelson made the necessary sacrifices. He got by one year on $2,800. He bluffed the rent. He drove a jalopy. Another year, no matter what else those college degrees qualified him to do, Nelson earned his spending money by digging up sewer pipes, and right beside him was another guy with a Ph.D., and a third guy who sometimes did Hollywood stunt work. It was the only part-time job they could find that would pay them enough money, while keeping them in shape for what some experts consider the Olympics' most physically demanding sport.

"If it would have meant pushing peat gravel up a hill in a wheelbarrow, we would have done it," Nelson said.

He needed time to train, time to push himself. He needed three weeks to paddle his way through the Grand Canyon, and three weeks more to run--yes, run--from Washington to Montreal. This was the way a biathlete fine-tuned himself, tortured himself, set aside all other worldly ambitions to thoroughly dedicate himself, as when Nelson and a friend ran through an Idaho logging camp and asked the foreman if they could clean up the lumber slices and dirty shavings behind the buzzsaws.

"We told him it had to be more than just work," Nelson said. "We said it had to be hard and physical, as well as something that would pay our rent. He looked at us like we were crazy."

After three decades of hard going, he had had enough. Through three Olympics, Nelson had placed no higher than eighth in a relay and 19th in an individual pursuit, but the biathlon was, face it, a European's event, one in which no American had ever won a medal, and anyway, the joy of competition was what kept persuading Nelson that all the terrible sacrifices were worth enduring.

The tall man from McCall, Idaho, could scarcely believe his own voice when he told the U.S. team organizers that he would return for one last try. Even he could not explain what there was about the biathlon that would urge a man to step outside the 200-year-old Vermont farmhouse he and his new wife had recently moved into, rub ointment on those 39-year-old muscles, sling that .22-caliber, German-made Anschutz rifle over his shoulder, and stomp off through the snow, with no income other than what he received for remaining an active major in the National Guard.

Maybe it helped that Nelson's understanding wife, Marty Rudolph, happened to be the U.S. Biathlon Assn.'s marketing director. Maybe it helped that Nelson promised himself, OK, one more, just one, that's it. "If I were to try for a fifth Olympics, I think I'd say, 'I'm definitely in a rut here.' "

Nelson feels old. The other biathletes come to him for fatherly advice. They ask whether to wear jeans or slacks to an awards ceremony. They needle him because he needs to work twice as hard as they do, just to keep up with them. They rip him about his decaying reflexes, about his tortoise-like blastoffs.

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