Bonnie's back! Blair hopes to fast forward to another keepsake tape

February 10, 1992|By Jere Longman | Jere Longman,Knight-Ridder News Service

ALBERTVILLE, France -- At least a hundred times, speed skater Bonnie Blair has popped the cassette into her VCR and watched herself win the 500-meter sprint at the 1988 Winter Olympics.

"The first few times, I really got choked up," Blair said. "After about a year I could watch it and be OK."

Today there is another gold medal to be won in the 500. And, on Friday, at 1,000 meters. Blair, 27, of Champaign, Ill., is undefeated at both distances this season. She will attempt a golden trifecta at 1,500 meters, but at that distance, for which she doesn't train and where a sprint becomes a middle-distance race, she is more vulnerable.

"I feel like I've done everything I've needed to do to be at my best the next couple of weeks," Blair said.

Fifty relatives and friends will cheer her on at the outdoor skating oval here, wearing white-and-purple jackets bearing her name. Her mother, Eleanor, will be there. Her sister, Susie, will be there. Her brothers will be there, all to see their sister attempt to become the first American speed skater to win gold medals in two Olympics.

"Bonnie's the best technician in the world, man or woman, in the sprint distances," said U.S. coach Peter Mueller. "She gets everything out of her stroke. And she's a killer. When she has 'em down, she doesn't let 'em back up."

At the Calgary Olympics in 1988, Christa Rothenburger of East Germany, skating the 500 in the second pair, set a world record of 39.17 seconds. She had won the 500 in 1984, and having broken her own world record, she appeared to have another gold medal waiting to go around her neck.

Two pairs later, Blair sprinted to the best start of her life, roaring past 100 meters at 10.55 seconds, to 10.57 for Rothenburger. Those two-hundredths of a second would provide the margin of victory as Blair rocketed past the finish line in 39.10 seconds, a world record that still stands.

It is not likely to fall in Albertville. First of all, Rothenburger took time off to have a child and has not regained her previous form. Though Ye Qiaobo of China and Christine Aaftink of Holland are definitely in the medal hunt, they do not pose the same threat to Blair in 1992 that Rothenburger did in 1988. If Blair wins again, as expected, she shouldn't need a world record to do it.

Second, the Calgary track was situated indoors, oblivious to wind and dirt and slushiness that affects an outdoor oval such as the one in Albertville.

Heavy rains followed by balmy weather have left the oval submerged under a half inch of water one day and mushy the next. Half of the track is in the sun, half in the shade, which complicates refrigeration techniques. Mueller, the U.S. coach, has suggested that all races be pushed back to sunset so that the skating surface will be uniform.

"It's better than I thought it would be, after all I heard about dirt on the track," Blair said. "I just want to have fair conditions for everyone, that's all I ask for."

If the track is slow and soft, she figures, it might even be to her advantage at 5 feet 5, 130 pounds.

"Everyone else is bigger, so maybe they'll sink in," Blair said.

There is little room for error during the 1 1/4 laps of a 500-meter race. In a race won by hundredths of a second, one slip can make the difference between first place and fifth. Blair is taking no chances. She skipped the opening ceremonies on Saturday, not wanting to sit in the cold for two hours. She will see her parents and friends after the race, not before.

"I need to lay down and keep my feet up," she said.

And if she wins again as expected, undoubtedly Blair will be invited back to the White House for a meeting with President Bush. She visited in 1988, when Bush was vice president. She was a little unnerved then by White House protocol, popping the cork prematurely on a champagne toast.

"This time, I'll know," she said.

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