Blair puts pressure on ice in race for Olympic first A BONNIE GOOD SHOW

February 01, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee--So here are the Winter Olympics, and here is its queen.

Watch her closely when she hurtles through the turns, keeping low, body level, left foot slicing straight ahead on the rock-hard ice. Watch her glide on the straightaways.

Watch her fend off the pressure of being the favorite to win the 500- and 1,000-meter races. Those would earn her fourth and fifth Olympic gold medals, surpassing swimmer Janet Evans, diver Pat McCormick and sprinter Evelyn Ashford, who are the only American women with four.

History again waits for Bonnie Blair.

"Her chances of winning two events are excellent, her chances of winning one are great," said U.S. Olympic speed skater Chantal Bailey, who will compete in the 5,000 meters. "We're not talking about another speed skater, we're talking about Bonnie Blair."

The Bonnie Blair. Winner of the 500 and 1,000 events in the 1992 Albertville Games. Winner of the gold in the 500 and a bronze in the 1,000 in the 1988 Games in Calgary. The only woman to win the 500 in consecutive Olympics. Recipient of the 1992 Sullivan Award, presented annually to the nation's top amateur athlete by the Amateur Athletic Association.

America may be sending its best team ever to the Winter Games, but it's Blair, 29, who is the star attraction. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding will draw the headlines, but the Olympics are bigger than that. They're about competition, spirit and medals.

And athletes such as Bonnie Blair.

"Neither age nor time has slowed her down," said Bailey. "In some areas of Europe, she could rate as high as Michael Jordan."

In Milwaukee or her native Champaign, Ill., a quick trip by Blair to the grocery store can become an unplanned autograph session. Blair spent the first four months after the 1992 Games keeping a hectic pace with speaking engagements, autograph sessions and commercial work.

She represents a half-dozen companies, including McDonald's and Oakley sunglasses.

But once the two-year Olympic cycle was established, Blair decided to go for more gold.

"At the time, I looked at athletes like Jimmy Connors and Carl Lewis, who were at the top of their sports and still loved what they were doing," Blair said. "I'm the same. I really don't have anything to gain. I've received gold medals, and that's the top. But I love the sport and the people in it, and the training isn't so bad."

It's not great, either.

"I've probably struggled more with that this year than anything else," Blair said. "Put everything aside, go to the rink, come back, eat lunch, lay on the couch, go back to the rink again or do whatever your next workout is, come back home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed."

Nick Thometz, Blair's coach, said: "She's been doing the same thing for so long that motivation can be a problem."

But that's what separates Blair from other speed skaters. She has the ability to focus on what is directly in front of her without being distracted by what lies ahead.

Look back at the U.S. Olympic trials last month.

Blair was easily the best of a mediocre field in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500, but she pushed herself to track records in eight of her nine races.

"I'm the one that really puts the pressure on myself and tries to really push it," Blair said. "That gun goes off, and I just want to go."

Faster, always faster.

As recently as a year ago, Blair feared she might have been losing the skills that had made her the world's top sprinter.

She finished no better than second in four races at the 1993 World Sprint Championships, and she was second overall behind her rival, China's Ye Qiaobo.

"I just didn't feel that quickness, and I was beginning to feel, 'Well, maybe I am getting old,' " she said.

Blair tried to work out a new training plan with her then-coach, Peter Mueller, but the two couldn't agree on the best approach. Blair switched to Thometz, who changed her weight program last summer and shifted the emphasis from heavy endurance and strength training to regaining her quickness.

Thometz also found that Blair's intense competitive desire was beginning to work against her.

"A big thing that we've been trying to work on is getting her to relax in her 500 meters specifically, because that's where she was having the most difficulty this fall," said Thometz, a three-time Olympian. "I'm trying to almost tone her down a little bit and have her relax, because the second you start rushing things, the slower you usually go."

The speed and power are back to pre-1988 proportions.

"I'm right where I want to be at this point," Blair said. "And if I work on a few technical flaws, I should skate even faster."

Faster?

"Well, I'm not perfect, you know," she said with a blush.

Almost.

Blair was 19 when she competed in her first Olympics, finishing eighth in the 500 meters at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo. Four years later, she set a world's record in the 500 meters with a time of 39.10 seconds.

It has been quite a ride to fame for Blair, whose father owned a concrete business. She began skating at age 2, and is the youngest of six children from a speed skating family. All but one became a champion.

But Blair became the best, and this woman with a dry wit and a Midwest twang has a way of attracting people -- and medals.

There's still one more date with history.

"The training, the mind, the technical aspect -- there's so many things where everything has to come together as one," she said. "We're just going to take it one race at a time."

COUNTDOWN TO LILLEHAMMER

Starting today and running up to the opening ceremonies on eb. 12, The Sun looks ahead to the Winter Olympics with a series of articles previewing the Games.

Tomorrow: They come from Minnesota and Maine, college campuses and the fringes of pro hockey. For one last time, the

Americans are in search of a "Miracle on Ice."

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