As Eau Claire native Ben Loomis prepares for his Olympic dreams to take flight in South Korea, only a select few people in western Wisconsin can truly appreciate what it means to step onto that brightest of international stages.
It has been 20 years since Mike Peplinski of Eau Claire and Karyn Bye-Dietz of Hudson made their Winter Olympics debuts, but the memories are so clear it could have been yesterday.
Peplinski, 43, was a member of the U.S. curling team that took fourth place at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Bye-Dietz, 46, was the top goal scorer on the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s hockey team at the same Nagano games and then made an encore performance four years later in Salt Lake City, where the team settled for silver.
Both of them savor their Olympic memories and remain involved in their sports — Peplinski as an occasional tournament participant and weekly league player at the Eau Claire Curling Club, and Bye-Dietz as an assistant coach for the Hudson High School girls hockey team and head coach of her son’s peewee A hockey team.
“I think about my Olympic experiences often, especially at a time like this with the Olympics coming up,” Bye-Dietz said Wednesday — the day the current U.S. women’s hockey team was boarding a plane bound for South Korea. “You get excited for the athletes because you’ve been there and you know what they’re going through.”
Asked what advice they would offer to the 19-year-old Loomis as he gets set to compete as a member of the U.S. Nordic Combined team at the Olympic Games starting Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Bye-Dietz and Peplinski offered remarkably similar responses.
“My advice to him is just to cherish every minute, have fun and do the best you can. That’s all you can do,” Bye-Dietz said. “He will wake up someday in March and say, ‘Whoa, where did it all go?’ “
“Enjoy the moment,” Peplinski said. “You know you’re ready for the competition, but make sure to take in the whole experience the Olympics brings. There’s so much to take in — walking around the Olympic village and talking to athletes from around the world.”
In another striking parallel between the two former Olympians, both Bye-Dietz and Peplinski shared stories last week about setting their sights on the Olympics at an early age.
Peplinski, who grew up in Galesville and started curling at age 10 at the nearby Centerville Curling Club, said he was about 12 when he announced to his grandma that he was going to be an Olympic curler.
He wasn’t deterred when his grandma reminded him that curling wasn’t even an Olympic medal sport. A state championship and second-place finish in the junior nationals at age 17 drove him to go as far as he could in the sport.
Bye-Dietz, who grew up in River Falls, said her inspiration came as an 8-year-old while watching the famed 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game in which the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team upset the defending champion Soviet Union en route to winning the gold medal.
“I was glued to the TV, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool!’ I remember saying to my mom and dad that I was going to go to the Olympics,” she said, recalling their somewhat puzzled reaction because women’s hockey wasn’t an Olympic sport at the time.
In a touching turnabout, Bye-Dietz said she has talked to a lot of girls and young women in recent years who revealed they were inspired to pursue hockey by her 1998 Olympic championship team.
As it turned out, Bye-Dietz and Peplinski both ended up being Olympic pioneers, as the 1998 winter games marked the first time women’s hockey and curling were official Olympic sports.
Looking back, Peplinski and Bye-Dietz both said their time in the Olympic spotlight sparked memories that will stay with them for a lifetime.
Peplinski, who was the subject of international media attention at the time because his kidney function was only about 25 percent and he was scheduled to receive a kidney transplant shortly after the 1998 games, said one of his defining memories involves being part of the opening ceremony.
While waiting alongside some of the best athletes on the planet in a giant gymnasium for the ceremony to begin, Peplinski and his curling teammates started talking about who they should stand by in the parade of nations. In hopes of getting on TV, they elected to get close to U.S. figure skating star and eventual gold medalist Tara Lipinski, who the curlers figured was much more likely than them to be targeted by television cameras.
The plan worked, and they ended up two rows in front of Lipinski as they processed into the Olympic stadium wearing their country’s colors with the letters “USA” on their backs.
“I remember almost feeling like I was floating. That moment was the culmination of the realization, ‘I’m really here,’ “ said Peplinski, whose official U.S. Olympic team bio reveals that he proposed to his wife, Michelle, by spelling out “Will you marry me?” in curling stones at the local club.
As they walked, the curlers noticed the big arm of a CBS camera drifting by as it headed toward Lipinski. It paused for a moment on Peplinski, who looked into the camera and said, “Hi, Mom.” At the time, the plan was for his mother to be his kidney donor, although his father-in-law ended up taking on that role.
Of course, Peplinski also remembers the highs and lows of the competition itself. After finishing in a three-way tie for fourth place in the preliminaries, with the top four teams advancing to the medal round, the memory of stirring tiebreaker wins over Sweden and Japan are some of his fondest. But losing the bronze medal game to Norway — and thus finishing one slot off the podium — still stings and remains a point of good-natured ribbing from his buddies.
“I’d like a few shots back, and I know the rest of my team would too,” said Peplinski, who is looking forward to his first reunion with the other three members of his Olympic curling team — Tim Somerville, Myles Brundidge and John Gordon — later this month in Eau Claire.
After the loss, Peplinski remembers attending the gold medal game in women’s hockey and seeing the U.S. team celebrating on the ice with the American flag and hearing the national anthem as the athletes received their medals.
“I just balled,” Peplinski said. “I guess it just hit me that it was incredible to compete but that my Olympic moment was done and I was never going to get it back.”
Realizing a dream
For Bye-Dietz, not surprisingly, that 3-1 upset victory in the gold medal game against Canada was the highlight of her Olympic experience.
“It’s almost difficult to explain what’s going through your mind when that buzzer went off and that meant we won — took the gloves off, threw the helmet, jumped on top of the goalies, lined up and held hands and had that gold medal put around your neck,” she said. “It was a very emotional time. I remember at times the tears just came. It really was a dream come true.”
It was the pinnacle moment of her life at the time — since topped only by the birth of her two children, said Bye-Dietz, who still occasionally has people ask for her autograph, igniting chuckles from her adult friends who didn’t know her until after her days as a two-time Olympian.
Losing the gold medal game to Canada in 2002, despite being a heavy favorite, remains her most painful Olympic memory.
“We had beaten Canada eight out of eight games going into that Olympics, so I thought we had the best team. But for that one day, Canada came out and played better than us. That’s the Olympics. It’s a one-game deal,” Bye-Dietz said. “It’s tough that I lost the last game I ever played in.”
Still, Bye-Dietz, who teaches fitness classes at Riverfront Athletic Club in Hudson and operates an online fitness company with her husband, realizes she was extremely fortunate to take part in two Olympics and come away with gold and silver medals, especially considering the U.S. team has never won another gold.
“I’m still one of only 20 USA women’s hockey players in history to have a gold medal, so that’s pretty special,” Bye-Dietz said, adding that she hopes the 2018 team can join her on that podium.
Other Olympic highlights for Bye-Dietz included the “huge rush” of walking into the stadium during her first opening ceremony, seeing other Team USA athletes cheering in the stands and having breakfast in the Olympic village in Nagano with hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky.
Representing a nation
To this day, Peplinski, a fourth-grade teacher at Locust Lane Elementary School and assistant varsity baseball coach at North High School, uses every opportunity he can to share his Olympic story with students. After working with Olympic sports psychologists to be able to perform under pressure at the highest level of his sport, Peplinski figures his Olympic pedigree gives him some “street cred” with student-athletes he is coaching.
Likewise, Bye-Dietz, who was featured on a Wheaties box in 1998 and inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 2011, is a regular speaker at school and corporate events. Her primary message for kids is to set a goal and do whatever it takes to achieve it.
Both Peplinski and Bye-Dietz recognize and appreciate that they are members of an exclusive club, and they will be watching — and cheering — as the newest western Wisconsin member, Loomis, takes his Olympic turn.
The memories, they said, still have the power to bring about goose bumps decades later.
“In high school and college I put on school jerseys, but the first time I put on that USA jersey I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this is way bigger. I’m representing the entire country,’ “ Bye-Dietz said. “To wear that red, white and blue and to be selected as one of 20 on the national team, it’s a pretty incredible feeling.”
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