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THE METTLE TO MEDAL

March 07, 1988
March 07, 1988

Table of Contents
March 7, 1988

Dodgers
The Winter Olympics
Golf
A Play In Four Acts
Perspective
Point After

THE METTLE TO MEDAL

To the delight of her Bunch, Bonnie Blair had what it took to win a gold and a bronze medal

There are no sequins in women's speed skating. No death-drop necklines or feathered hats. Nobody gets points for lipstick or meaningful eye contact. And there are no we-can-still-get-'em-with-the-Gilbert-and-Sullivan-number second chances.

This is an article from the March 7, 1988 issue Original Layout

There are only fast women waiting for a gun. They are tough, and they dress not to flirt but to fly. One such woman is Bonnie Blair of Champaign, Ill., who early last week lined up for the start of the women's 500-meter race at Calgary's Olympic Oval bent on proving she was the grittiest of them all. "It's hard to describe Bonnie," her teammate Mary Docter had said. "She's just a tough chick."

But even for a tough chick, the vise on her temples must have felt Olympic-sized. All around her were people she did not want to let down. In the stands to her right were more than 20 friends and family members, including Charlie, her father, who 23 years earlier had been officiating a skating meet at a rink when he heard over the loudspeaker: "Looks like the Blairs have another skater." The newborn was Bonnie. Also in the stands last week was Rob, her brother, with a four-month-old baby strapped to his chest. Rob's old fraternity buddy at Illinois Wesleyan, Milwaukee Bucks center Jack Sikma, who had donated $1,500 to Bonnie's Olympic effort, couldn't make it, but he was watching the race on TV in New York.

To Blair's left, along the rail, was her boyfriend, U.S. speed skater Dave Silk, who said he was "more nervous for Bonnie's race" than he had been for his own. Next to him was Blair's skating godmother, former Canadian speed skating star Cathy Priestner, who had talked Blair into switching from pack-style racing to Olympic-style speed skating and had arranged for her to use the University of Illinois rink for practice at six o'clock in the morning.

And back at Doyle's, a bar in Champaign, a whole platoon of cops was screaming, singing choruses of "Bonnie B. Goode" and crossing their fingers. On their cars outside, the bumper stickers read: CHAMPAIGN POLICEMEN'S FAVORITE SPEEDER: OLYMPIAN BONNIE BLAIR. The police have been on Blair's case since 1982. Back then Champaign's finest gave her checks, while all she got from the local businessmen were a lot of good luck's.

Now, as she hunkered down into the speed skater's awkward starting crouch, she had a chance to pay off her sponsors with the ultimate currency—an Olympic gold medal. See? Ways to disappoint were everywhere. In a Winter Olympics two quarts low on American heroes, Blair was being counted on to mine gold—never mind that she didn't even own the world record in the 500. You want pressure? She had even made the cover of LIFE. And with the men's team having fallen the week before, both literally and figuratively, she was suddenly Bonnie-on-the-spot.

"But she's not like other skaters," said Dan Immerfall, the assistant U.S. speed skating coach. "She holds up to it. Bonnie is as hard as nails."

That you could gather from the taut muscles visible beneath her close-fitting, orange-and-gray racing skin. But was she that hard inside? If you could have seen her at noon the day of the race, you might have called Doyle's and told them to cancel the champagne. She was feeling jumpy, uneasy. She had a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, went back to her room in the Olympic Village, put her feet up and tried to relax.

Later, at the rink, her chief rival, Christa Rothenburger of East Germany, didn't help matters much. Racing two pairs before the one Blair would be in, she put up a world record 39.12. That was enough to make anybody's PB&J do somersaults.

Still, Blair knew Rothenburger's time was not unassailable. "You can go faster than that," U.S. speed skating coach Mike Crowe told her minutes before she raced. "I know," said Blair. She also knew she would have to push her 5'5", 125-pound body around the oval like never before.

Which is exactly what she did. Using what she called "the best start of my life," she high-stepped it to the 100-meter split .02 of a second faster than Rothenburger had. Blair's first turn "wasn't too good," she later told Silk, but on the backstretch she seemed to switch into overglide. And on the final turn, as Eric Heiden put it, she was "on the blocks the whole way," meaning she stayed low and tight on the curve.

That .02 of a second at the beginning gave Blair the gold. Had she and Rothenburger been racing head-to-head, Blair would have won by about 10 inches, or less than the length of one skate. "What amazed me is that when someone puts a world record up in front of you, it's easy to choke," said Heiden, "but Bonnie didn't. She showed a lot of poise under pressure."

Her time of 39.10 gave Blair "the shock of my life" when it flashed on the scoreboard. She flung her fists into the air and started on a hug mission. She gave one to Silk, whispering into his ear, "I can't believe I got the gold!" Then she embraced Priestner. Finally, she gave the Blair Bunch in the stands a symbolic hug. "The moment I crossed the finish line was the happiest moment of my life," she said. "And hearing the national anthem played when I got my medal was probably the second happiest."

Not until much later, after she had finished the medal ceremonies, the drug test and the press conference, did she get to run into the arms of her family and friends. They formed a giant scrum outside the oval, where they chanted, "Gold! Gold! Gold!" and took turns biting the medal to see if it was real. Talk about genuine. Does there breathe a family more real than this one?

"I feel like we won the lottery," Detective Sergeant Danny Strand said back at Doyle's. "We got behind a girl who came along looking for help. Who'd have thought she would be faster than a speeding bullet and be Superwoman?"

Bonnie's next race was the 1,000 on Friday. Skating in the third pair, she set an Olympic record, but Karin Kania of East Germany, who had an infected throat, beat Blair's time by .61 of a second for the world record. Then, one pair later, Rothenburger outdid Kania's performance by .05 of a second to win in 1:17.65. Blair wore the bronze around her neck no less proudly than she had the gold. "I'm happy; I mean, it was a personal best by 1.2 seconds," she said.

Finally, on Saturday night, came the 1,500, but Blair was spent. "I tried," she said after finishing fourth. "And it was hard. I was tired right off the bat."

But so radiant was Blair's win in Calgary that other skaters were warming their hands over it. Holland's Dutch treat, Yvonne van Gennip, was certainly the Queen of Calgary with her cache of three golds. And yet she credited at least her 3,000-meter victory on Tuesday, Feb. 23, to Blair. "Everybody thinks the East Germans are so unbeatable," she said. "But after Bonnie beat them Monday [in the 500], I went up to her and said, 'Thank you. You showed me what I can do tomorrow.' "

Van Gennip was a long shot for a gold in Calgary, but she piled it on the East Germans again Saturday in the 1,500. Skating with a final-lap kick Jim Ryun would have relished, Van Gennip, a 23-year-old ex-medical student, put away Kania and Kania's teammate Andrea Ehrig for her second gold.

This was the same skater who had spent a career being intimidated by the East Germans? "In Sarajevo [where she was shut out in the 1984 Olympics], I never thought I could beat them. When you beat them you are very good.... I am so glad to do it before they stopped skating," said Van Gennip.

They might have stopped sooner had they known what Van Giddyap (or, as the Dutch hordes in the stands kept chanting, "eee-VAH-nuh") would hit them with. On Sunday she would seal the finest Dutch Olympic effort since speed skater Ard Schenk won three golds at Sapporo in 1972. Finishing the 5,000 in a preposterous 7:14.13, she splintered by 2.99 seconds a world record set by Ehrig only four pairs before. When she looked at her time, she said, "I saw three gold medals. That's unbelievable!"

Even harder to fathom was the fact that in December Van Gennip looked as if she might not skate at all, having undergone surgery on her foot to repair a wound from a skating boot tied too tight. "I remember in the hospital thinking I would not skate at all [in the Olympics]," she said. "But then, the next day, I thought I wanted to try. I wanted to fight."

Tough chick. Van Gennip thus became a national icon in the skate-crazy Netherlands, even if she wasn't ready for it. "I don't feel like a star," she told Dutch journalists, who eventually warmed her up to the idea. "Maybe next week I'll fall through the ice. But they can't take these [medals] away from me. I have them in my pockets."

In there, too, were the lusty Dutch fans at the oval, who sang drinking songs and put on such an exhibition of love for her that even Kania cried for joy. "The Dutch people show such deep feeling for her that I must cry," said Kania, who shed no tears for herself and her goldless Olympics. "It is all right," she said. "We cannot be the best forever."

Nevertheless, they weren't bad. The East German women packed away 10 of the 15 medals awarded, and Kania, by taking three of them, became the first woman to win eight Olympic speed skating medals in a career.

For America's Bonnie-come-lately, even her fourth place in the 1,500 was greeted by the members of the Blair Bunch as though it were the cure for the common cold. They dragged her over to a Calgary bar named Billy Miner's, popped champagne and toasted everybody but the inventor of ice. Moreover, the U.S. Olympic team selected Blair, its only double medal winner, to carry the flag in the closing ceremonies. "It feels like I'm living a dream," she said at Miner's. "And I'm not sure if I want it to stop."

Blair is sure that she's going to skate at the World Cup Finals in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, in late March. After that, she doesn't know if she wants to go back to Parkland College, try for the 1992 Olympics or cash in as the new Mary Lou. She has already appeared in an ad for Bulova and has gotten nibbles from American Express, Coors and Disney. And she may throw out the first ball at the White Sox season opener. (Note to the Sox catcher: Back off. Blair used to play some pretty mean softball.)

For now, though, everybody wants to see her medals. There's only one problem. Each medal depicts all the sports of the Winter Games except one. "Look," she said. "There's no speed skater on them."

Good thing there are those two medals on the speed skater.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONBlair's excellent start in the 500 was the crucial edge in her narrow triumph over Rothenburger.PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEThe 20-plus members of the Blair Bunch in Calgary included (clockwise from above) Mom; a trio of happy supporters in white; Dad; and Bonnie's sister, Mary Polaski, and her son Nick.PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE[See caption above.]PHOTORONALD C. MODRABlair topped one world record time with one of her own.PHOTOGWENDOLYN CATESChampaign's finest gave Blair avid support—with their pocketbooks as well as their voices.PHOTOMANNY MILLANOnce "The Star Spangled Banner" began to play, Blair could no longer restrain her tears.PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHInspired by Blair, Van Gennip went triple Dutch, winning golds in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000.PHOTOJERRY COOKE[See caption above.]THREE ILLUSTRATIONS