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

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.

"I'm a definite slow-twitch athlete," Nelson said. "When the gun goes off, it usually looks like I didn't hear it."

He envies younger men such as Josh Thompson, 25, the teammate who has a shot at becoming the first American skiing shooter to take a medal. He regrets that his countrymen did not make progress in the sport a little sooner, recalling how, when a U.S. biathlete came along 20 years ago, it was "like a basketball player coming out of Finland."

Nelson said: "I look at these guys, 20, 21 years old, and they train half as long as I do, and they're going to be better than I ever was, and I'm an eight-time national champion. Even by 1992, the U.S. will be ready to make its move in biathlon. That's how fast it's growing."

There are still the usual drawbacks, of course. Nelson figures there are roughly 1,000 paid-up members of the biathlon association in America, and maybe 300 who are paid to compete, and maybe 30 who are really serious about it, and maybe 15 who work at it all year long.

"In the whole cross-country world, there might be three guys who don't have to scrape by. And, one of the three I'm counting, he's living on $10,000 a year, and I don't call that scraping.

"On the other hand, I know what sort of money (gold-medal skier) Phil Mahre makes in a year, because I asked him, and what some other skiers make, and I don't begrudge them a thing. They earned everything they got. I just hope that someday, we'll be deserving, too."

Deserving.

That's what his teammates considered Lyle Nelson. That's why they picked him as biathlon's nominee for U.S. flag-bearer. No biathlete had ever been chosen for that honor, but Nelson was nominated because his teammates had seen how long and hard he had trained, without the reward of bronze, silver or gold. They also had seen the way he made friends so easily of Soviets and Germans and Finns, or anyone else who, over the course of four Olympiads, had dropped by the Americans' camp.

Thompson, the coolest of customers, a man with a mask for a face, was running and grinning when he caught up with Nelson Friday evening near the Olympic Village's mess tent. Nelson knew before Thompson said a word. Nelson had been tagged to carry the flag.

Saturday morning, he was 39 years old, and feeling like 6 again. Feeling like a kid. He was feeling 18 again, remembering all the parades and formations from West Point, remembering the rule of thumb: "Don't turn left when everybody else goes right."

It didn't snow on Lyle Nelson's parade. He led the U.S. Olympians into McMahon Stadium, so when he turned, they turned. If these were his last Winter Olympics, he definitely was going out in style. If he were to return in 1992 for one more, well, there were worse ruts for a man to be in.

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