WORLD SPORTS SCENE / RANDY HARVEY : ’76 Gold Medalist Mueller Puts U.S. Speedskaters on Thick Ice
Peter Mueller, one of the coaches for the U.S. speedskating team, is not so presumptuous that he will take any credit for the success of Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. He points out, quite correctly, that they were world-class skaters long before he returned to the United States last spring.
Yet, Blair and Jansen will tell you that Mueller has had everything to do with the success they hope to have in the Winter Olympics in February at Albertville, France, and it takes only a brief glance at their results since he became their coach to know that they are closer to the truth than he is.
Four years ago, Blair and Jansen were considered leading medal contenders among U.S. speedskaters in the Winter Games at Calgary, Canada. Blair produced, winning a gold medal in the 500 meters and a bronze in the 1,000, and Jansen might also have won a medal if not for the death of his sister that left him too dazed to skate at his best. He fell twice during races.
Blair and Jansen, still in their early 20s at Calgary, figured to be on top of the world, or at least in the neighborhood, for at least the next four years.
For a while, they were. Blair won the world sprint championship in 1989 and 1990, and Jansen was second in the World Cup standings in both of those years in the 500 and 1,000.
But in 1991, both lost their edge.
There could have been a number of reasons to explain Blair’s fourth-place finish and Jansen’s fifth at the world sprint championships, including the six-week interruption in their seasons when they returned home from Europe during the Persian Gulf War because of security concerns.
But Blair, Jansen and other elite skaters also believed it was time for a coaching change. The man at the top of the U.S. coaching staff at the time, Mike Crowe, had been spending more time at home in Butte, Mont., with his family and less time on the circuit with his skaters.
While in Germany last winter, the skaters themselves approached Mueller, a gold medalist for the United States in 1976. Mueller had coached Blair, Jansen and others early in their careers.
For at least two reasons, it seemed like a bad fit. Besides having two years remaining on his five-year contract to coach in Germany, Mueller was not on particularly good terms with the U.S. International Speed Skating Assn., having filed suit against the governing body at one point.
“I could tell the skaters weren’t real happy, but I thought it was more or less for fun when they approached me,” Mueller, 37, said last week at the start of the second phase of the U.S. trials at the Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink.
“But they came to me every day. I didn’t know how feasible it would be. I had problems with the association, which is the reason I left the United States in the first place. But we all realized it was time to put that behind us. If it had been any other country, the Germans wouldn’t have let me out of my contract. But they understood I wanted to go home.”
At one point last fall, the skaters were ready for him to leave again.
“They sent me a Son-of-Sam letter,” Mueller said, referring to a pseudo-insurrection because he had been working the skaters so much harder than they were accustomed during fall training.
Inside the envelope, which had his name on it in letters clipped from various newspapers, was an article about a cyclist who had found the key to competing most efficiently through less training.
“But I didn’t care how hard they had worked at that point,” Mueller said. “My system is something I developed over 12 years with trial and error. I saw the results I had with people in Germany who had one-hundredth the talent these people do. So we stayed right with the program. They weren’t happy about it, but I think they’re happy with the results now.”
Indeed they are.
“Pete’s made a big difference,” Jansen said. “First of all, we know that he’s been there. He’s been in the position we’re in right now. But the other thing is that he’s so excited about us doing well. When I skate, I want to do well because I know how happy he will be. It’s crazy, I know.”
While Blair and Jansen are skating better than ever, Mueller said a realistic goal for the U.S. team in 1992 is seven medals, which is one more than the entire U.S. Olympic team won four years ago.
Mueller believes that 1992 could be the beginning of a golden era for the United States in speedskating.
Although there has been a lapse in the developmental program, leaving the country with few elite skaters between the ages of 17 and 22, veterans such as Blair, 27, Jansen, 26, Eric Flaim, 24, and Nick Thometz, 28, are still young enough that they could return when the Winter Olympics come around again in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway.
By then, Mueller predicted, the talented young skaters who are training here under another former Olympian, Dianne Holum, will be ready to emerge. They soon will be skating in the $12.1-million Pettit Ice Center, a state-of-the-art indoor rink that will replace the outdoor facility here by the end of next year.
The United States, as well as other countries, also will benefit in the future from the disappearance of East Germany’s sports machine, a subject with which Mueller became all too familiar while coaching in West Germany.
“I had East German coaches talk to me about what they were doing, tales that make your hair stand up on your back,” he said. “You can do a lot of things with good sports medicine. They had a lot of good sports medicine.
“We’re no angels in this country, either. A lot of athletes do whatever they want. But it doesn’t come from the U.S. Olympic Committee or from the USISA. In East Germany, it was supported by the government.”
Other changes, Mueller said, will make the future more difficult for the former East Germans, particularly the women who have dominated speedskating for a decade.
“They’re learning there’s more to sport than sport 24 hours a day,” he said. “They have to go to school and worry about what to do after they finish skating. Not everyone in the country is going to wait on them hand and foot like they were.
“Their top people will still be competitive for a few more years, but their developmental program has gone to hell. It’s like someone threw a wrench in their spokes. Their coaching staff went from 200 to 25. They’re going to cut that again the first of January. Welcome to the real world.”