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Health and Fitness Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 29, 2009
Breaking barriers for love of the sport and love of life
By Saranac Hale Spencer
GUILDERLAND Whisking over winter’s frozen Lake Packanack, with a measured swing in her arm, Cornelia Sanders chased her childhood crush all the way to a place in history.
The young Olympian grew up a few blocks from the lake in Wayne, N. J., “and it froze,” she said. “It had beautiful ice.”
Dutchy, the boy next door and the object of her affection, skated the lake. “The local people skated on it and some not-so-local people skated on it,” she said. “Case in point the three guys I trained with.”
Dutchy’s father had told Olympic speed skaters, Ray Blum and Ken Henry, about Packanack’s secluded expanse of smooth ice.
“I’d get out there and they’d treat me like one of them,” Sanders said. They “let me do laps, let me train, let me do everything they did.”
The foursome would clear a quarter-mile track with snow shovels and skate until the sun went down, Sanders said.
“I had this problem,” she said. “Girls had figure skates.”
The jagged teeth on the toes of her skates, meant to propel twirling skaters through the air, would bite into the ice as she sped, forcing her forward and cutting her chin, she said. “I wanted speed skates,” she said, “and I got them for Christmas that year my dad got a pair for $10.”
So, Sanders kept chasing Dutchy and learned to keep an even gait.
“There was a race one weekend by age groups and I went and I skated very well,” she said. “I was hooked.”
With the encouragement of her first win, Sanders, who was 12 or 13 at the time, went on to the Silver Skates competition, which she likened to the Golden Gloves.
“I got a chance to fly across Madison Square Garden in a pair of tights,” she said with fresh amusement after over 50 years. It was one of the few races in which she was fouled, Sanders said. “I had wet pants I thought it was hysterical. I got up laughing,” she said, recalling that there had been much applause from the audience.
After finishing the Silver Skates competition with a reasonable showing, Sanders began competing regularly in races. She started picking up medals in 1958 and, “in 1959, I really hit the jackpot,” Sanders said.
She broke a 43-year record in Saratoga and won the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake competitions, she said. “I won the New Jersey championship,” she said. “That was at Packanack Lake that year.”
Sanders was 14 when her father, who worked for a corrugated box company and came up with an idea to put a jingle on the inside of a Coke cap, asked if she’d be interested in trying out for the Olympics.
“I said ‘yes’ to that and promptly started regretting it,” she said. “I was not a big breakfast eater and an Olympic training regimen included eating breakfast.”
After she did well enough in the sectionals, regionals, and eastern seaboard trials to qualify for the Olympic trials in Powderhorn, Minn., a judge decided that, at 15, Sanders was too young.
“So, despite the fact that I won two of three races that’s two-thirds in anybody’s book I was not certified to go.”
A still unidentified onlooker contacted the Olympic Committee, which called her father on the Tuesday before the trials to be held over the weekend. After getting the call, he booked a flight to Minnesota on a mail plane and Sanders took all of her mid-semester exams before boarding.
Making the team
It was 26 below in Powderhorn and it was the first time that Sanders had lost the half-mile race another skater had punched her in the nose. “I learned something,” she said. “These are very hard girls.”
All the hotels in town were filled, so Sanders bunked with one of those very hard girls.
When the trials started, she said, the rules were simple: The first was the shortest race and the first three finishers made the team, then, on each of the next three days, the distances increased, but only the winner made the team.
“The first day, I was third from last instead of top three,” she said. On the next two races, the 1,000 and 1,500 meter, Sanders was fourth from last. So, on the 3,000 meter, she was “facing an all-or-nothing race.”
Sanders skated around the track for almost two hours, until “my perspiration froze on me a half-inch thick,” she said, and the next day she woke up, and “my father makes a big deal that I had steak and eggs for breakfast.”
For the 3,000 meter, she was in the next-to-last pair to race around the quarter-mile track and the other skater was the number-one sprinter in the country. Sanders decided to just keep up with her and she could see that by the fifth lap, the sprinter was starting to wobble. She closed in and passed while the other skater collapsed. With two laps to go, she was a second away from the fastest time yet.
“I thought, ‘A second is a long time, but so is two laps,’” she said. “I can make it up.”
After the next lap, the announcer said she was even, and Sanders put her head down, “and steamed around that track,” she said.
At the finish, she knew she had a good time, Sanders said, and “I whipped across the track and jumped into my father’s arms.”
She had made the first-ever Olympic women’s speed-skating team in 1960.
“Open, unassuming kid”
In Squaw Valley, Calif., Kathy Mulholland, her hard-drinking roommate who made the team in the first race, would sneak out at night to meet the Squaw Valley Marines, Sanders said.
Snow was falling 10 to 17 inches deep overnight, she said, and the Squaw Valley snow removal couldn’t keep up with the quarter-mile track. That and the coaching were the biggest obstacles at the games, Sanders said, since the first women’s team shared the men’s coaches.
“The coaches didn’t know what to do with us,” she said. In the following years, each team had its own coach, Sanders said.
“I was a very open, unassuming kid,” Sanders said. “I wanted to meet lots of people.”
A naturally nurturing soul, who grew up in a family of nine that hosted a series of invalids, Sanders was the only volunteer in the athletes’ cafeteria to aid the Polish women’s speed skating team, which had come down with “Montezuma’s revenge” and spoke not a word of English. She put them on a rice, chicken, banana, and toast diet, which had them “under some control” after three days and eating protein after five, she said.
In a race later in the Games, a Polish skater beat Sanders in her strongest event. At the end of the race, she waited for Sanders and let her know that she wanted to meet at 2:30 in the cafeteria.
They met and she took Sanders to her room, where “she cut the patch right out of the front of her competition jersey and she gave me the patch and she gave me a very close, long hug and then she threw me out of her dormitory room.”