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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

READY FOR THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES : Connie Paraskevin-Young, 35 : Cyclist Getting Better With Age Approaching Her Fifth Trip to Games

July 14, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Connie Paraskevin-Young will see them in the Olympic Village with their stuffed animals and hair ribbons and girlish things, and she will know as she looks at them what they will not know until later.

That to be so strong and still so young, so tested by competition and so untested by life--that is something no number of Olympic teams or medals will ever let them recapture.

"What they don't know and don't realize--that's exactly what is most beneficial to them," said Paraskevin-Young, a cyclist and former speedskater who is back for her fifth and final Olympics at 35. "They're just there to enjoy, do what they do, compete in the Olympics. They're on a high, they're performing. That's a great feeling. And as much as they don't know it then, it will be the best feeling they'll ever have.

"As you get older, you take on more responsibilities that are not sports, but personal. It becomes a big puzzle you try to juggle. Never again will you have your sole focus as competition. To have that back again, I'd give anything."

Paraskevin-Young was 18 when she made her first Olympic team as a speedskater in the 1980 Winter Games. She returned in '84, then switched to track cycling and won a bronze medal in Seoul in '88 and went to Barcelona in '92. She made her final Olympic team last month by beating 21-year-old Christine Witty in the finals of the match sprint at Trexlertown, Pa., breaking her own 10-year-old track record in the process.

"This is definitely my last Olympics, that's for sure," said Paraskevin-Young, whose home base is in Corona del Mar. "That in and of itself is kind of a shocker."

After a disappointing trip to Barcelona, where she was disqualified from a crucial race by a judge's decision and failed to advance, Paraskevin-Young considered retiring, taking six months off.

"Maybe I'd get on the bike to go down to the beach," she said. "Literally, in my life, I'd never taken six months off."

But by the time a year had passed, she was training for Atlanta and a last chance at gold.

"She likes to ride a bike, and competing in the Olympics is a goal you can get excited about," said her husband and coach, Roger Young, whose sister is former Olympic speedskater and cyclist Sheila Young. "When you've been an Olympic athlete, and you're saying, 'I'd like to still ride, I'd like to still compete,' the only goal there really is, is another Olympics.

"In her heart, and in my heart, I knew she could still improve from '92. It's like when you get off the phone with someone and you're saying, 'God, I should have said this or that.' After a lot of races, you get done and you're thinking, 'We should have tried this or we should have tried that.' After '92, there were still things that were yet untried."

The disqualification in Barcelona--a judge ruled her back wheel left the sprint lane and obstructed a French rider--tested Paraskevin-Young's will to race.

"I trained for the Games, I competed, but I really felt I got cheated by the officials' call," Paraskevin-Young said. "My mind was telling me I didn't finish something I started. I didn't feel completed.

"I had a lot of disappointment, questioning how things in our sport change. One thing I always liked was it was athlete-determined, not determined by judges. But then there were so many official rulings, it seemed every time you raced there were different types of calls.

"I thought, 'Man, you train for four years and give 100 percent, and then my finish is in the hands of someone else.' I thought, 'No, I don't need to do that, I'm not 16 years old anymore.' There are other things I want to do with the rest of my life. Maybe it was time to move on."

It wasn't, she knows now. Instead, incredibly, she seems to be at her peak at an age when women athletes--particularly women in sprint events--are presumed to be finished or close to it.

Roger Young disputes that, saying women can remain competitive even in non-endurance events.

"I have a textbook that shows degradation versus age in performance, but it's based on cultures," he said. "In the 1960s, women weren't competing in their 30s and 40s. It's far more acceptable in the '80s and '90s to be highly competitive at 30 or 40, especially for women. The idea of a woman performer tapering off at 30 or 40 was based on a culture that considered it a novelty for a girl to run cross-country. There's every reason to believe you can get better and better.

"Physically, you can stay as fast as ever. And your ability to play the game improves. Then there's a third thing, skills. She handles and steers a bike better than anyone on the track. It's interesting to watch. I've seen her defeat opponents on superior tactics, superior skills and superior strength."

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