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Blair marches to record fifth gold medal

Greatest: Bonnie Blair

Blair is special ... but she doesn't know it
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"I remember skating around with one of the guys on the [Olympic] team and asking who's that and pointing to different people out there. And he says that would be Karen Kania [of East Germany] and you will be skating against her. And I thought, That was a girl? She's as big as some of the guys on our team. I've got to compete against that?" says Bonnie Blair on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

The story of her birth on March 18, 1964 sounds like a fairy tale. The heroine's dad, Charlie, who had fathered four speed skaters among his five children, decided it would be better if he took the kids to a meet while mom gave birth. Soon after dropping his wife Eleanor at the hospital, Charlie, the timer at the meet in Yonkers, N.Y, heard the public-address announcer tell the crowd, "It looks like Charlie's family has just added another skater."

Bonnie Blair
Bonnie Blair won two gold medals at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway.
That baby became the fastest woman American speed skater who ever lived.

Of course, when the story is told, few believe it. "I know," Bonnie Blair says with a laugh. "But it's true. In those days husbands really weren't allowed in the delivery room. So Dad figured instead of waiting for me to be born, since Mom had been through this five times before, that he'd take the rest of the kids to a skating meet. . . . So I was just a few hours old when I got my first loudspeaker announcement."

She has gotten quite a few loudspeaker announcements since, especially at the Olympics. Circling the globe, from Calgary to Albertville to Lillehammer, she picked up a few souvenirs that no other woman from the United States possesses. While diamonds are rumored to be a girl's best friend, Blair prefers gold, like in five gold medals at the Olympics, the most ever won by an American woman at the Winter Games.

No woman had ever won consecutive 500-meter speed-skating championships at the Olympics -- Blair won three straight. The 5-foot-4, 130-pounder also captured two 1,000-meter titles. And through all the championships, Blair kept the same hat size. "Bonnie doesn't know she's a celebrity," said her mother Eleanor. "She sees herself as a regular person."

Bernie Lincicome of the Chicago Tribune described Blair as "the kid sister of all America, as genuine as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Born in Cornwall, N.Y., the Blair family moved to the Midwest when Bonnie was a toddler and she was raised in Champaign, Ill. She started skating at two and by four she was competing.

While her older siblings continued on with the rest of their lives and skating became secondary, a teenaged Bonnie decided to dedicate her life to the sport. If Blair were going to make the 1984 Olympic team, she knew she would have to train in Europe. Even before she graduated Centennial High School in 1982 -- she did it by correspondence -- a trip was made possible when the Champaign Policemen's Benevolent Association raised the entire amount, $7,000. Among her training partners overseas was Dan Jansen, who would go on to Olympic tragedy and triumph, and the two developed a close relationship.

In Sarajevo, competing as an unknown in her first Olympics, Blair finished a respectable eighth in the 500 meters. She was only 19.

In 1987, Blair was the World Cup champion in the 500 and set a world record for the event, which was broken by Christa Rothenburger of East Germany. At the 1988 Games in Calgary, Rothenburger snapped that mark easily, with 39.12. But two pairs later, Blair not only won her first Olympic gold, she regained her world record. She got off to the best start of her life, 10.55 seconds for the first 100, and blazed around the 500-meter oval in 39.10 seconds, defeating defending champion Rothenburger by an eye blink.

A jeweler in Champaign fashioned a necklace for Blair out of 39 jewels. She became the only double medalist for the U.S. at these Games by capturing the bronze in the 1,000. About 30 members of the Blair Bunch -- family and friends of Bonnie's -- traveled to Calgary to cheer her.

Her father Charlie, who had graduated from Yale in 1935 with an engineering degree, had been the first person to tell Bonnie that she would someday win an Olympic gold medal. When he died on Christmas Day 1989, her skating lost some of its intensity. In 1990, she was beaten for the world sprint title by Angela Hauck and the next year she fell even further -- to fifth. Then she dedicated her 1992 Olympic performance to her father, and her skating improved: In the 1991-92 season, she was undefeated at both the 500 and 100 meters.
Bonnie Blair
Olympic speed skating champion Bonnie Blair, left, and her mother, Eleanor, right, hold up the the Olympic Torch after it arrived at Mercury Aviation in Atlanta from Athens, Greece on Dec. 4, 2001.

At the Games in Albertville, France, the Blair Bunch was back even stronger with 46 members swaying in unison in their purple Team Blair jackets and singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Their darling Bonnie had done it again, becoming the first woman to win two Olympic 500s and the first American woman to win consecutive Winter Olympic championships. When she left the medal podium, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith kissed her.

"Her long strides make her the best technician in the world over the sprint distance, man or woman," said U.S. coach Peter Mueller, the 1976 Olympic champion in the 1,000 meters. "She's really dynamic; she gets everything out of her stroke. It's like she was born on ice."

Blair raced the 1,000 in 1:21.90, but there were no high fives or raised arms from the exhausted skater, as she had done after her 500 race. The gold medal still hadn't been decided. She sat on a bench near the starting line to watch the rest of the competition. It was with relief that she saw Ye Qiaboco of China finish a mere two hundredths of a second behind her time. Blair had her second gold of the Games.

She won the Sullivan Award in 1992 as the top amateur athlete in the country.

More than 60 of the Blair Bunch traveled to Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 to see history. "A lot of people think that I'm under a lot of pressure with my family and friends spending all that money to follow me," Blair said. "But they don't care whether I win or lose. They'd come anyway because we're one big family that's having lots of fun."

Blair had the most fun when she added to her gold collection. She became the only American Olympian -- man or woman -- to win a gold medal in the same event in three successive Winter Games by capturing the 500 in 39.25 second, .36 seconds ahead of runner-up Susan Auch of Canada. She had become so comfortable on the podium that she happily sang along as the national anthem was played.

But still she needed one more victory -- in the 1,000 meters -- before she could leave four-time gold medalists Evelyn Ashford, Janet Evans and Pat McCormick in her rear-view window. Blair went all out for 600 meters and then held on the rest of the race. Her time was 1:18.74, and she won by 1.38 seconds, the largest margin in Olympic history for the event.

There still was one goal that Blair had left: Breaking 39 seconds in the 500 meters. She accomplished it in March 1994, with a 38.99 in Calgary to become the first woman to get through the 39-second barrier. Blair went even faster on Feb. 12, 1995, also in Calgary. She blazed to a 38.69, helped by the 38.94 that Auch skated in the same pairing.

Blair exited at the peak of her powers. On her 31st birthday (March 18, 1995), she had a personal best and set an American record with her winning time (1:18.05) in the 1,000 meters. It was her last race.

Retired from skating, Blair earns a living as a motivational speaker to various corporations and associations, commanding as much as $20,000 an appearance. She also donates her time to a variety of charities that she organized through the Bonnie Blair Charitable Fund.

Married to Olympic teammate Dave Cruikshank, the couple has a son Grant and a daughter Blair. The family lives in Park City, Utah.

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