Blair out of the shadows in a flash Speed skater back where she is at home

February 10, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Correspondent

ALBERTVILLE, France -- Bonnie Blair -- American star.

It sounded right in the moment after that gold-medal triumph four years ago. This feisty speed skater from Champaign, Ill., the one who used to break into a rink at dawn to train, had stood up against all these dour and forbidding East Germans.

The Americans were melting down at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, and here came Blair, a Lycra-coated flash, roaring out of a final turn to get a 500-meter world record and win a gold medal.

She cried when the American national anthem was played. She hugged her family. She tugged at all the emotional Olympic strings. Surely, this was a speed skater America would remember.

She went to the White House. She did an advertisement for a watch company. She served as one of those athlete-greeters on a cruise.

And then, Blair disappeared into the shadows of her sport, hitting Butte and West Allis, Wis. America forgot its speed skating heroine.

"In a sense, I'm glad stardom didn't happen," she said. "In certain parts of the country, people may know the name, Bonnie Blair. But it's hard to put a face with the name."

Today, though, Blair will reintroduce herself to the country in a setting of beauty and pressure. On an outdoor oval of ice, with the French Alps looming in the background, Blair will try to repeat as the Olympic 500-meter speed skating champion at the 1992 Albertville Games.

At the age of 27, she again has emerged as her sport's fiercest competitor. She is undefeated at 500 and 1,000 meters on the 1991-92 World Cup circuit. Go back to 1986, and Blair has placed in the top three in 26 World Cup races.

"I really enjoy what I'm doing," she said. "I love the thrill of competition."

Like others who have starred in this sport that is rooted in the American Midwest, Blair was born into a family of skating zealots. At age 2, the youngest of six was pushed out on to the ice wearing a pair of second-hand skates worn over her shoes.

Back then, she liked to feel the wind against her face. Now, she races only to win.

"Bonnie is a killer," said U.S. coach Peter Mueller.

Blair trained a solid decade for her gold-medal performance. It was one of the best-timed victories in American Olympic history. Blair was growing furious with each passing day at the 1988 Calgary Games. The Americans were getting blitzed in every sport. The hockey team was lousy. The skiers were worse. It took a full week before the U.S. got its first gold medal -- won by figure skater Brian Boitano.

"I was just irate," Blair said. "I was ready to go blast people."

Race day, Blair relaxed. She got a massage. She ate a peanut butter sandwich.

The rest remains a jumble of emotions and memories.

The comfortable feel of the ice . . . the numbers put up by her closest rival, East German Christa Rothenburger . . . the perfect start . . . and finally, the world-record finish in 39.10 seconds.

"It was one of the most exciting times of my life," she said. "One minute, I'd be laughing. The next, I'd be crying. The next, I'd be hollering. Then there were all of these interviews. And then I finally got to see my family. It's times like that, that you like VCRs."

Four nights later, Blair finished third in the women's 1,000. She came home as America's only double medalist.

While Boitano cashed in on Olympic gold with a television special and a skating tour, Blair scrambled for sponsors. The deal with the Bulova watch company was a natural. So were the speaking engagements. In her plain Midwestern accent, Blair easily put across the ideals of the Olympics.

But she never viewed herself as a public person. After years of training in isolation, it was a shock for Blair to have even 15 minutes of fame.

"You just constantly saw people all the time," she said. "I even have to admit I got sick and tired seeing everyone over and over."

At a White House reception, she met then-Vice President George Bush and turned her head this way and that to take in the whole scene. Bush told her: "You know, sometimes, I do that exact same thing. I just can't believe I'm here either."

For Blair, the Olympics are tangible. They are her stage.

She has survived in her sport long enough to witness tremendous changes. The East Germans, once nameless, almost faceless enemies, have become her friends. Rothenburger even sent her a birth announcement.

Others may focus on allegations of past drug use by the East Germans. But Blair looks at the faces of athletes set free by the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

"The skaters have to get their own sponsors now, the guarantees they once had under the old system are gone," she said. "But they seem happier. They're able to bring their families on the tour. That part of it is very exciting. To see the smiles on their faces is wonderful."

Still, Blair won't let new friendships eclipse old goals.

"All I know is I have to go out there and beat them no matter what," she said.

Win, and Blair may again have her brief flicker of fame in the United States. But in Holland, where speed skating is a national sport bordering on obsession, Blair still is a star.

Two summers ago, a couple from the Netherlands, visiting relatives in Chicago, decided to drive four hours south to Champaign. They stopped in at a gas station and asked for directions to Blair's home, where they were met at the door by one of Blair's brothers. He offered the visitors tea and a tour. A year later, the couple reappeared in Champaign.

"That someone would go to that length to find out where you are is just mind-boggling," Blair said. "That's probably nothing for somebody like Michael Jordan. It just doesn't seem believable for it to happen to a speed skater."

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