Speed skater Young caps fairytale games with a medal of each colour

American speed skater Sheila Young’s explosive performance in the 500m won her country its first gold medal at the 1976 Winter Games, in the fog of a February morning in Innsbruck. Her triumph came a day after she took silver in the 1,500m – and was capped by a bronze-winning performance in the 1,000m.

It was a fairytale start to the Games for the Detroit-born athlete, who had announced her engagement to Olympic cyclist Jim Ochowicz on the eve of the competition.

Young’s set of speed skating medals made her the sensation of the Games, as she became the first American athlete to win three honours at a single Winter Olympics.

An intense competitor, it was to prove an incredible year as she won bronze at the World All-Round Speed Skating Championships, became world sprint speed skating champion, broke three world records, and was crowned both world and United States sprint track cycling champion.

Young’s triumphs were the product of perseverance as well as her background. Both her parents had competed in speed skating and cycling, and her brother Roger was a well-known cycle racer.

After graduating from high school in 1968, she tried and failed three times to get on the US speed skating team, but relentlessly carved up the ice on rinks across Michigan, clocking up thousands of practice miles until she was finally selected.

Handed her break, there was no stopping Young. She competed at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo – as did her brother – and just missed out on a medal, finishing fourth in the 500m. “That’s when the real work began,” she told reporters.

A year later she became world sprint champion, and became the first woman to skate the 500m in less than 42 seconds. Innovations in training and clothing technology meant the sport was getting faster year-on-year, but Young’s powerful build was enabling her to pull away from her rivals.

Shortly before the 1976 Austrian Games she became the first woman to skate the 500m in less than 41 seconds – leaving her perfectly poised for success in The Olympia Eisschnelllaufbahn in Innsbruck.

In Olympic competition, skaters race in pairs against the clock around a 400m oval. During these exhilarating and occasionally perilous contests, which see racers hit speeds of up to 69kph, they must change lanes in the back straight of each lap, the skater passing from outside to inside being given priority.

Races are physically gruelling, with skaters constantly buffeted by centrifugal forces of 50-60kg, forcing them to lean heavily towards the sheet ice track.

Having already set a world record of 40.91 in the 500m, Young won with an Olympic record time of 42.76. She lost out in the 1,000m to USSR skater Tatyana Averina and fellow American Leah Poulos, and finished second in the 1,500m, a fraction of a second behind her Soviet rival Galina Stepanskaya.

Following her Austrian triumphs, Young skated two more world records – then retired to start a family. She briefly came out of retirement for the World Sprint Championships in 1981 and 1982.

The US Olympic Committee crowned her Sportswoman of the Year in 1976 and 1981 for her feats in cycling and speed skating and she was inducted in the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1988, and the National Speed Skating Hall of Fame in 1991.

Young is now a teacher and the mother of three kids – the eldest of whom, Elli Ochowicz, is also a speed skater, who competed at the Winter Olympics in 2002, 2006 and 2010.