"I've been skating for 21 years. It's probably far too long already. In a way, I've put off starting the more difficult part of my life," said Leah Poulos-Mueller, 28, sitting in her Wisconsin home a few weeks ago.

"If I'd worked that many years, I could have my pension by now," she said. "Instead, this is what I have."

With that, she opened a small box and showed a silver Olympic medal. Her husband, Peter Mueller, took out an identical box and showed a gold medal.

"Be careful," laughed Poulos-Mueller. "We always say that to people, and we feel silly. But I guess we mean it. We don't let very many people touch them. You'd just feel sort of bad to see it dropped."

The Mueller's medals stay in their boxes, in a bureau upstairs. Now, another medal will be added to the collection. Leah, who was second at 1,000 meters at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976, was second at 500 meters today.

For the last four years, Leah Poulos-Mueller has wondered if she was doing the right thing, if she was wasting her time and misdirecting her life.

First, she partially retired from skating, then in 1978 she married Peter Mueller (a fellow U.S. teammate in 1976) and retired in earnest. She came out of retirement last year for one more grab at the Olympics.

"Speed skating doesn't want to let you go," she said. "You have to throw your skates in the corner and walk away. But it's very hard."

Within the American speed-skating colony near West Allis, Wis., the Muellers are regarded as total anomalies -- people who lead an impossible double life.

"Speed skaters think it is impossible to live anything near a normal life and still be a champion," Mueller said. "I think it bothers some of them that we prove you can."

With great pride, Leah ("don't call me Mrs. Mueller, that sounds too old") will point that she is the laziest speed skater on earth. By this, she means that she only works a full-time job, trains enough to be an Olympic champion, and makes a home.

In Olympic Games where a certain religious fervor, almost an ideological imbalance, often seems a necessity for success, the Muellers seem profoundly reassuring.

"I've stayed with skating mostly because it helps Peter in training," Leah explained. "When I retired, he went sour. We need to coach and prod each other. We're fed up with other coaches, but we can tolerate each other pretty well."

"I've stayed with it," Peter said, "because winning that gold medal was a feeling I'd like to have again."

The Muellers have roughly 90 seconds left before retirement. Each skates the 1,000 meters -- Leah on Sunday, Peter on Tuesday.

However, when the end comes, both -- thanks largely to Leah's determination -- will be a year further along the path to a normal future than most Olympic competitors.

Both have had jobs for the last two years as part of the new Olympic job program. "It's a tremendous idea," Leah said. "Without it, we couldn't be here.

"I know people will misunderstand this, but I hope we can reach the point where our Olympic athletes ae treated like the East Germans are. They work part time toward jobs they can hold the rest of their lives.

"Before the Olympic job program arrived, I worked every menial sort of cashier and stockroom job you can imagine," said Leah, who now has an administrative position with a large soft-drink firm. Peter works with a restaurant.

If they Muellers wish that U.S. Olympians, instead of being discarded, could be assimilated by their country as some communist athletes are, that does not mean that they would wish all the conditions of their competitors.

"You can never outguess Russia and East Germany on who they will unveil at an Olympics," Peter said. "It's like winning a war to them. It's their trump card."

"We've watched the East Germans destroy a whole generation of skaters with blood doping, steroids, overtraining and eroded joints," said Leah before the Olympics began. "It's just a question of whether they can bring along a new generation in time that they haven't burned out yet."

Today, 18-year-old East German Karin Enke, who burst on the scene by winning the world sprints a week ago, took the gold to Mueller's silver in the 500 (41.78 to 42.26).

"I had problems with the Dutch starter. I was called for two false starts," said Mueller. "I'm thinking some real bad thoughts about him now and whether or not he was playing some games. I had to sit back and accept a bad start so I wouldn't risk being disqualified."

That bad start may have cost her the gold she waited four years to collect.

Nevertheless, Leah Poulos-Mueller said, "I'm neither real happy, nor disappointed. I'm content.

"Our days of feeling that an Olympic athlete had to stand on the street corner with hat in hand are over for us.

"And Pete and I have another medal for the Mueller collection."