American speed skater
At the 1994 Olympics, speedskater Cathy Turner was being just like the Cathy Turner everyone knew; tough, competitive and controversial. She took a tight corner in the 500 meter short-track race, shoulder to shoulder with her competition. A speedskater's hands glide over the surface of the ice to keep balance, but in this case, some said she used her hands as a weapon. One of them seemed to grab hold of the ankle of China's Zhang Yanmei, knocking her out of contention for the gold. Most other athletes would have had the benefit of the doubt. But this was Cathy Turner and she had spent years in the sport developing a bad reputation for "dirty skating." The incident didn't quite match the furor that Tonya Harding was facing at the same time but it challenged Turner's love of the sport. Even though she's spent many years trying to clean up her image, ultimately her performance that night would end up being what many people remember about her otherwise impressive career.
An Outsider Sport
Turner was born in Rochester, New York on April 10th, 1962. She was a strong skater from an early age, displaying a strength that tended to push her out in front of the pack early in a race. Because of this her trainer decided to focus her on short-track speedskating, the skating equivalent of track's 100-yard dash.
Turner showed a lot of promise as an amateur skater, displaying explosive speed and climbing the amateur circuit, quickly garnering the U.S. championship. But there was one big problem that all of her determination couldn't overcome; the Winter Olympics, a goal so many young athletes aspire to, did not include short-track speedskating in its lineup. Disillusioned with the sport, she left it for another love, music. Under the name Nikki Newland, she performed as a lounge singer around the United States. But after a few years passed, speedskating was again beckoning to her. The decision to compete again got a lot easier when the Olympic committee finally saw fit to include short-track speedskating in the winter Olympics of 1992. Even though Turner had found some success in her singing career she decided to get back into competitive skating at twenty-six years old.
There were many people who had serious doubts about Turner's ability to stage a comeback at her age. But she decisively overcame the skepticism by quickly qualifying to compete in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. After dreaming of the Olympics throughout her childhood, she didn't want to miss the debut of her sport as an international competition. Her performance was almost perfect. She won the gold in the 500 meter race by 4/100th of a second and helped the U.S. team win the silver in the 3000 meter relay, showing off her incredible short sprints of speed to the world.
A Horse Race on Ice
Turner developed a reputation as a tough competitor over the course of her interesting career, some would say a little too tough. Turner's own perception of her sport sums it up best. "I describe it as a horse race on ice with a lot of passing and position changes," she told Sara Walker of Sports Illustrated for Kids. "There are tight, fast turns and lots of spills." Indeed, speedskating on an Olympic level can see the athlete hitting thirty-five miles per hour on the ice, the kind of speed that usually requires a seatbelt. The sport can get very physical, with skaters jostling for position with cunning and, many times, elbows. Some skaters would argue that part of the sport is getting away with whatever device you can to grab the lead and Turner always embraced that philosophy.
The infamous example of this reputation was in the Lillehammer Olympic Games in 1994 when, among other things, Turner crossed skates on the course with favorite and champion, Nathalie Lambert. Lambert was knocked out of contention as a result. Later in the games, after settling for the silver behind Turner in the 500 meter sprint, China's Zhang Yanmei stormed off the ice and threw her bouquet on the track, frustrated and upset by what she thought was an illegal shove by Turner during the competition. It was reported in Macleans, that when Zhang was asked in a news conference if Turner was the sport's dirtiest skater she was quick to answer, "Yes. Absolutely." Turner was hurt by this but defended herself by saying she was simply very competitive and that the others were upset because their performances had been so dismal. "It's nothing new. It's an ongoing thing," she told Leigh Montville of Sports Illustrated. "They say I'm too aggressive. They're not used to someone fighting for the turns the way I do."
Later in the competition Turner went up against Zhang one last time in the 1000-meter race. She needed to place second to qualify for the finals, but after what appeared to be a brilliant victory on her part, she was disqualified for cross tracking. Cross tracking is a difficult call for a referee to make since it means one competitor illegally prevented another competitor from passing; a subjective call that is always open for debate. Many believe this was just a way for the Olympic officials to punish Turner for what she was accused of a couple of nights prior. Turner, at age thirty-one, had planned to leave the sport for the last time in the world championships in England. But after her experience at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics she decided it was time to go home. "I have a husband and a life," she told Montville. "I don't want to be around these people. The Olympics were fine, but this day was not fun."
|1962||Born April 10 in Rochester, New York|
|1979||Becomes U.S. National Champion in short-track speedskating|
|1981||Leaves speedskating for lounge singing|
|1988||Returns to skating competitively|
|1992||Albertville Winter Olympics, wins the silver medal in the 3000 meter race and the gold in the 500 meter sprint|
|1992||Graduates from Northern Michigan University with honors, degree in computer systems|
|1993||Retires from speedskating and joins the Ice Capades.|
|1993||Fired from the Ice Capades and begins training for 1994 Olympics|
|1994||Lillehammer Winter Olympics, wins gold in 500 meter race and bronze in 3000 meter relay|
|1994||Retires to be with husband and open a fitness center in New York|
|1998||Comes out of retirement to defend her title in the Olympics but fails to get a medal in Nagano Olympics|
|1999||Begins to repair her image by promoting causes close to the heart, including young athletes, mental health charities and the American Heart Association|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1979||U.S. national champion, short-track speedskating|
|1992||Gold medal in 500 meter sprint, Albertville Winter Olympics|
|1992||Silver medal in 3000 meter relay, Albertville Winter Olympics|
|1994||Gold in 500 meter sprint, Lillehammer Winter Olympics|
|1994||Bronze in 3000 meter relay, Lillehammer Winter Olympics|
|1999||Named to U.S. Speedskating Gold Council, created to promote the sport and inspire speedskaters to achieve Olympicambitions|
As if to prove her talent she went on to race pro hockey player Al Lafrate of the Washington Capitals in a post-Olympics exhibition race. Lafrate was one of the fastest skaters in the league at the time, but Turner beat him easily. But, like many "retiring" athletes, she sensed one last opportunity to compete and returned to her sport to be in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. This time, though, her appearance was without incident and yielded no medals.
Turner started her own fitness club in upstate New York after leaving competitive sports. She shot a number of fitness videos as well, which were nationally distributed. She's made a good business out of traveling around the country giving motivational speeches to corporate audiences as well as mental health charities and young athlete organizations. She's been the National Spokesperson for the Special Olympics World Games and the American Heart Association. Turner also put her singing talents to the test by singing the National Anthem at a Buffalo Bills home game and for President Clinton at the Xerox 100 Golden Olympians Gala.
Cathy "Burner" Turner's record as a short-track speedskater is impressive by any standard. Her victories in the 1992 and 1994 Olympics cemented her name, and nickname 'Turner Burner', in the annals of her sport. She stands as one of the most adorned female athletes in Winter Olympic history—with four medals total.
Address: Cathy Turner, Cathy Turner's Empire Fitness, 83 South Avenue, Hilton, NY 14468.
Deacon, James. "Wild and Wooly." Maclean's (March 7, 1994): 56.
Hunter, Sarah, and Adam Hunter. "Winter Wonderland" Sports Illustrated for Kids (May, 1994): 26.
Montville, Leigh. "Fire on Ice." Sports Illustrated (March 7, 1994): 34.
Sketch by Ben Zackheim