Young, Sheila (1950—)
Young, Sheila (1950—)
Speedskater and cyclist who was the first American to win three medals in the Olympic Winter Games. Name variations: Sheila Young Ochowicz. Born on October 14, 1950, in Birmingham, Michigan; daughter of Georgia Young and Clair Young; married Jim Ochowicz (a cyclist), in 1976; children: Katie, Elli, and Alex.
Was a founding member of the Women's Sports Foundation; was a board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Cycling Federation, and the Special Olympics International; won the gold medal in the 500-meter, a silver in the 1,500-meter, and a bronze in the 1,000-meter speedskating events at the Winter Olympics (1976).
Though it is normal for speedskaters to cycle in order to build up their leg muscles, it is not normal for them to hold international titles in both sports. In an age before women's participation in these sports had captured the American public's attention, Sheila Young became the only athlete, male or female, to hold world titles in both speedskating and cycling. While her achievements were more than extraordinary in the history of sports, Anne Janette Johnson notes that she "lived a spartan existence, trained on frozen ponds, and got more recognition in foreign countries than she did at home."
Young was born in Birmingham, Michigan, in 1950, to parents who were both competitive skaters and cyclists. She put on her first skates at age two, Johnson reports, but proved to be a reluctant participant in her family's athletic passions: "Although she taught herself to ride a two-wheel bike when she was four, she did not care for winter sports and had to be bribed to go skating with her father and siblings." Nonetheless, training turned into a family affair at Quarton Lake in Birmingham, Michigan. Young became a junior national champion in speedskating and began working with coach Peter Schotting. To condition for skating, Young had to cycle in the warmer months as she had no rink in which to skate. Cycle racing was not yet an Olympic event, but, notes Janet Woolum , Young's cycling success would inspire "a generation of women cyclists to go beyond recreational biking to competitive sprint and road racing."
After Young failed to qualify for the Olympic team in speedskating during 1968, she trained rigorously for the next four years. In 1970, she saw the first of many speedskating successes with wins at the U.S. National Outdoor Competition and the North American Outdoor championship. Woolum notes that during the same year, Young began to regard cycling as more than a conditioning sport for her skating. In 1971, she won the Amateur Bicycle League of America's women's national sprint title.
Young made the U.S. Olympic speedskating team which competed in Sapporo, Japan, in 1972. Though her teammates Diane Holum and Anne Henning both took home gold, Young missed a medal by 8/100ths of a second, coming in fourth. "To lose by such a narrow margin was a disappointment," she remarked, "but at the same time it encouraged me. That was the first year I had really trained seriously, and I could see the improvement."
In 1973, she won the 500-, 1,000-, and 3,000-meter competitions at the speedskating championships in West Allis, Wisconsin. That same year, she took the gold medal in the 500- meter at the World Speed Skating championships at Davos, Switzerland, and also set a new world record. Young won three more events at the World Spring championships in Norway and the 500 meters at the Women's World championships in Stromsund, Sweden.
And her cycling success continued. In August 1973, she won the U.S. sprint title. Young then traveled to Europe for the World Cycling championships, where, crashing twice, she received cuts on her arms and legs, as well as a deep gash on her forehead. Telling doctors "Paste me together!" she went on to win the race, becoming the first American to earn a world sprint cycling title in more than half a century.
At the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Young found the gold medal in speedskating which had until then eluded her. She became the first American in history to bring home three medals in the Winter games—gold in the 500-meter race; silver in the 1,500-meter, and bronze in the 1,000-meter. That same year, Young won the U.S. and world sprint titles in cycling. She continued both sports after her marriage to Jim Ochowicz, a fellow cycler, in 1976 and did not retire until after the birth of her second child in 1983.
A founding member of the Women's Sports Foundation, Young has also served on the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Cycling Federation, and Special Olympics International. In 1981, she was selected the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sportswoman of the Year. She also became a member in three Halls of Fame: the International Women's Sports Hall Fame, the U.S. Cycling Federation Hall of Fame, and the Speed Skating Hall of Fame. Young once noted in Golden Girls: "I'm proud of my sports…. I wish my sports were bigger here, but not for the glory. I wish they were recognized more because people are missing a chance to see how exciting they are." Though she saw the day come when the public shared her enthusiasm, the athletes who followed in Young's footsteps would be the ones to receive attention in sports which she had made her own.
Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998.
Soucheray, Joe. Sheila Young. Mankato, MN: Creative Education Society, 1977.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1992.
Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia