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Sochi Olympics evoke golden memories for Cathy Turner

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Rochester Business Journal
February 14, 2014

After shoveling an oval rink out of the snow that blanketed her frozen backyard pond, Cathy Turner squeezes into the old speed skates she wore at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Her feet throb a bit as she toes the imaginary starting line, but once the fun race against 13-year-old daughter Bayli commences, the discomfort is quickly forgotten. Round and round they zip, the counterclockwise trips on the miniature oval carrying Turner two decades back in time.

“When I put those skates on, it was like being in a time machine,’’ she says. “All the emotions came rushing back.”

The most accomplished Winter Olympian in Rochester’s history has been awash in nostalgia lately, and that’s quite understandable. As she watches the athletes compete at the Sochi Games, she thinks back to the height of her short-track speedskating career when she won a total of four Olympic medals—two golds, a silver and a bronze—in Albertville, France, in 1992 and Lillehammer, Norway, two years later.

“I’m sitting here watching from half a world away, but sometimes it feels like I’m right there in Russia, competing with them,” says Turner, now a database administrator at Paychex Inc. “I swear when they are sprinting off the starting line, I can feel it in my legs. I’m shouting things at the television, like I’m coaching them. I’m totally into it. It’s actually pretty exhausting. I’d be less exhausted competing.”

There are times she wishes she still were. “In my mind, I think I could still do this,” says Turner, who turns 52 in April. “Whether my body would hold up, I don’t know. But it sure would be neat to try.”

Hey, Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige was still pitching professionally into his 50s, so who’s to say this fitness fanatic couldn’t still compete? She does know a thing or two about comebacks, having defied the odds two decades ago after a nine-year hiatus from competitive speedskating. In reality, though, there’s way too much on her plate these days to even consider such a bold move. Between work and the rearing of two very active, sports-minded teenage daughters, Turner has her hands full.

She enjoys working at Paychex, and the feeling apparently is mutual. Her bosses recently asked her to conduct several motivational webinars for the company’s employees. During her presentations, she dons one of her Olympic jackets with the large “U.S.A.” embroidered letters. Her props include her four medals. She believes the goal-setting and visualization techniques she used as a world-class athlete are applicable to the corporate world.

“I want them to go for their gold in whatever they pursue,” Turner says. “I try to teach them the secret ingredients that helped me realize my dream. It essentially boils down to this: See it, believe it, be it.”

To prepare for the webinars, she pulled out a bunch of tapes from her Olympic races and even watched television interviews she did at the time. It had been a while since Turner had seen them. The viewing prompted much introspection.

“I was completely drained, but in a good way,’’ she says. “I hopped into this world where I used to live, and I was completely in that world, and it was like a big, giant wow. It’s funny, but on the one hand, it seems like it happened yesterday. It doesn’t seem like all those years have gone by. On the other hand, it’s kind of surreal. You pinch yourself and say, ‘Did that really happen? Did I really accomplish that, or was that somebody else?’”

No, it wasn’t somebody else. It was indeed her. And further validation came recently when NBCSports.com included her on its fan ballot of the 19 greatest U.S. Winter Olympians. Candidates were chosen based on medal output and the impact the individual had on his or her sport. Other names on the list included speedskaters Bonnie Blair, Apolo Ohno and Eric Heiden, alpine skier Bode Miller, snowboarder Shaun White, and figure skaters Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton. “I was blown away to be included,” Turner says. “It’s a huge honor.”

Interestingly, Ohno credits Turner for inspiring him to take up the occasionally crazy sport of short-track speedskating. The two met in Lake Placid while training for the 1998 Olympics.

“He was about 14 and really shy,” she recalls. “In fact, he was so scared it took him two weeks to get up the courage to talk to me. We eventually became friends, and I tried to encourage him and give him advice whenever I could. I remember running into him at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, and he was really nervous about having to do the television interviews. I told him, ‘Just be yourself. Just relax and show them your heart, and everything will be OK.’ He’s obviously done OK for himself. He’s certainly not shy anymore.”

Not surprisingly, Turner’s daughters are both natural athletes. Britney, 14, is an accomplished tennis player who has been on the Hilton varsity since the seventh grade. Bayli, meanwhile, is a Level 8 gymnast (out of 10) who will be attending a camp this summer run by national team coaches and trainers. Both girls were skating by the time they were 4 but left the ice to concentrate on their current sports.

However, an interesting thing happened during that recent outing on the backyard oval. Although Bayli was racing with hockey skates, she displayed the same form her Olympic champion mother had.

“I told her afterwards that if she concentrated on skating, she could compete in the Olympics—no question in my mind,” Turner says. “She said, ‘I know, Mom. I’ve been thinking about it.’ I got goose bumps when I heard her say that. Of course, she may also become good enough to give it a shot as a gymnast, too. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has covered five Olympics, including the 1994 Winter Games in Norway.

2/14/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


What You're Saying 

Frank Cicha at 12:46:33 PM on 2/14/2014
Great article. How did you find her?

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