Mary Docter was 30 before she found the right word to describe herself. It was not any of those proud, chest-swelling words that come with being a three-time Olympian, words such as athlete, hero or role model. It was addict.
"Up until last fall, 1990, I was buying marijuana by the half-ounce and smoking that morning, noon or night until it was all gone," she said at a news conference Sunday night at the Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink, where she had just earned a berth in a third event on her fourth Olympic speedskating team.
"I was smoking before class, after class, before I studied, after I studied, before I trained, after I trained. It was a serious addiction. It was something I needed, and I thought I enjoyed it.
"Drinking was a weekend thing. I went out on Friday nights and drank until I got plastered. I'd drive drunk. I was preoccupied. I would be sitting there studying, thinking about going out and having a drink. That was my reward, my emotional lift."
Until last weekend at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials, interviews with Mary Docter were considered an amusing diversion for reporters and perhaps even for her.
In 1988, Docter made her third Olympic team at the trials here with only minimal training and joked about it.
"I was going out every night, drinking lots of beer and smoking," she said at the time. "My mom and dad were going nutso, thinking I was a loser."
She said the Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada, would be her vacation.
"I'm going to meet a lot of beautiful men," she said.
But here, during an hour-long news conference, which was interrupted several times as she broke into tears while discussing her dependence on alcohol, marijuana and cocaine and her ongoing recovery, she told of her Calgary experience.
"My coaches thought I was skating well," she said. "But the minute I got to Calgary, I hit the town. The first night we got there, I went up to this guy who I knew, just by looking at him, was using drugs. Within a half hour, we were at his apartment, getting stoned. I went out with him three nights that week. On race day, I was so tired. I was so unprepared when I got to the line for those races."
She finished 19th in the 3,000 meters, 11th in the 5,000 and again was the life of a news conference, when she said: "You've been saying I've been drinking, that I've been taking drugs, that I'm promiscuous, that I'm a loser."
Pause for effect.
"I'm not a loser."
She was. But she had yet to figure it out. "It was a joking matter," she said Sunday. "It was a joke to me, too. I was proud I could party and still be an athlete. I think now about what a dumb bitch I was. I should have been ashamed."
She began the long road to getting straight in the fall of 1990, when she confessed to a classmate at the University of Wisconsin her concerns that she enjoyed partying too much to pursue a career as a physician's assistant.
The classmate recommended a counselor, whom Docter eventually visited.
"She asked me a series of questions, and I answered 'yes, yes, yes,' " Docter said. "She said, 'You're an alcoholic.' I said, ' . . . you,' and left her office."
Docter decided later to enter the counselor's outpatient program and stayed straight for four months.
"I was in denial the whole four months," she said. "I felt satisfied because I knew I was doing the right thing. At the same time, I wanted to drink normally and use marijuana every once in a while. I was fighting it. They told me I was an addict, but I didn't want to admit that. That's the first step in the 12-step program, to admit you're powerless to your addiction.
"I tried to quit. I tried to quit every time I ran out of a bag of marijuana. I said, 'I won't buy another one.' That's crazy."
After Docter relapsed a second time, the classmate, fearing her friend would earn a degree within a semester and begin working with patients before confronting her problems, informed university officials. When Docter failed a urine screen in March, they insisted she enter a rehabilitation center. She chose the Hazelden Foundation in Minneapolis.
"It was like a vacation, getting to know Mary," she said. "It was hard to accept that my self-esteem sucked. It was hard to accept I was a drug addict. But it helped me to learn that it's a disease, and that a lot of people have it."
Docter does not know the source of her addiction, although she said she suspects it is genetic.
"I think I've had the problem since the first time I drank, when I was still under-age," she said. "The first time I drank, I did stuff I don't even remember, crazy stuff according to my friends."
But she also recognizes that she relied on drugs and alcohol to escape her sense of lack of fulfillment as a skater. Although she has been one of the world's best since 1979, she has never won an Olympic medal. Her best finishes were sixths in the 3,000 in 1980 and 1984.
Nor did she ever beat her younger sister, Sarah, who appeared destined for Olympic stardom until she had a nervous breakdown at 17 in 1982. Her condition diagnosed as an obsessive-compulsive personality, she retired from the sport and, according to Docter, is happily married and living in Florida.
Perhaps it was because of her sister's problems that Docter did not burden her parents at home in Madison, Wis., with her own until the beginning of her monthlong stay at Hazelden.
"They kind of knew," she said. "But there was no way I was going to tell my mom and dad, 'Guess what, I did cocaine last night.' When I did tell them about my addiction, they said, 'That's bull . . . .' My mother told me I wasn't an alcoholic. My dad said I shouldn't have told my classmate.
"They thought it was my own fault. I thought it was my fault. They were denying it as well. I can understand that. Your parents want to think they have a healthy, happy family."
On April 18, Hazelden sent Docter to its halfway house, the Fellowship Club, for three months.
She took jobs as a maid in homes during the day and returned to the halfway house each night, when she would regularly attend group therapy sessions and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
"I was getting to know a lot of people, who were all recovering," she said. "We did a lot of things together, and we did them straight. I had never done anything straight. It was fun."
The U.S. coach, Peter Mueller, said he believes she will be a medal contender in February at Albertville, France, in two of her three events.
It would be nice to win a medal, she said, but her new goal in life is to remain sober.
She acknowledged that she is worried about that at the Olympics. Although she said her parents have become supportive, they will not be able to spend much time with her at Albertville. Neither will her personal coaches. And, always an outsider in the sport, she has no friends on the team with whom she can discuss her addiction.
"I'm pretty confident about my sobriety, but I don't want to get too confident because that's when I'll crash," she said. "I think I could make it through this trip without an AA meeting if I had good friends on the team. But I don't know who I will talk to."
When someone suggested that she can take solace from all of the supportive cards and letters she will receive from other recovering addicts when her story becomes public, her eyes brightened.
"You really think I'll get letters?" she said.
When she was assured that she would, she was eager to give her address:
7835 Martinsville Road
Cross Plains, Wis. 53528
"Yeah, I'd like that," she said. "That'd be really nice."