The last time the public saw speed skater Bonnie Blair she was back home in Champaign, Ill., showing off her gold and bronze medals from the 1988 Winter Olympics to the cops and other townspeople who had cheered for her—indeed, financed her, prayed and cried for her—as she performed in Calgary.
In the past 12 months, Little Bonnie Blair, as Jim McKay dubbed her, has grown up a bit. In August, she said goodbye to her parents, left Champaign and enrolled at Montana Tech, which is about as far away from Jim McKay as one can get. Blair also scaled down her training—she didn't get onto the ice until November and skipped the season's first two World Cup events.
So it was that late Sunday afternoon Blair, 24, found herself once again on the victory stand, the giddy winner of the women's World Sprint Championships at Heerenveen, the Netherlands. And her victory there was almost as sweet as the one in Calgary. That Olympic triumph had been expected; this one was, oh, such a surprise. "As far as my expectations go, I don't have any," she had said before the competition. "The main difference this year is I have been enjoying myself, which means I'm not anywhere close to the condition I was in last year."
In condition or out, Blair has a way of knocking out crowds as well as opponents. The 12,000 Dutch fans in Heerenveen's indoor oval even serenaded her with My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. Her two-day performance in four races, two of 500 meters each and two of 1,000, made her the first U.S. woman to win a world sprint championship since Leah Poulos Mueller a decade ago. "I got you," Blair said kiddingly to Mueller, who was in Heerenveen as an analyst for CBS.
Blair got everybody by winning the 500 on both Saturday and Sunday, and by finishing third in the 1,000 on Saturday and second in the 1,000 on Sunday. In a scoring system in which times are converted into points (each second in the 500 equals one point, and each second in the 1,000 equals a half-point), she edged her long-time nemesis, Christa Luding of East Germany, by .165 of a point. Nobody else was close.
The key to Blair's victory came in Sunday's 500. Going into the last turn, her right foot slipped toward the outside as she tried to take a quick step to set up the turn, and her feet were spread for an instant. "I didn't think I was going to fall," said Blair later, "I knew I was going to fall. I heard the crowd gasp." In the blink of an eye, she recovered without a spill, finished the turn and came home with a rush to win in 39.54, just .03 better than Luding.
As good a day as it was for Blair, it was less than spectacular for her teammates. The next-best finish by an American in the 28-woman field was 20th by 17-year-old Tara Laszlo of St. Paul. Prospects for the 1992 Winter Olympics look bleak for U.S. women speed skaters, especially if Blair, who plans to skate again next season, puts the sport in her rearview mirror by 1991, which she has threatened to do.
Nor did the U.S. males light up the oval in Heerenveen. Even their coach, Mike Crowe, who is attuned to fragile egos, admitted, "I was a little disappointed in the men." Crowe had predicted that Dan Jansen would win the sprint title, but he came in fourth; Crowe had said that Nick Thometz would finish third, but he was fifth; he had proclaimed that Eric Flaim would be fifth, but he was seventh. The best finish in any race by an American man was Jansen's second in Sunday's 500, in a personal best of 36.55.
The men's champion was the Soviet Union's Igor Zhelezovski, who said he had competed in only one World Cup event this season because Soviet officials were punishing him for his poor performance in Calgary, where his best finish was a bronze in the 1,000. He was first in three of the four races at Heerenveen, and he tied the 1,000-meter world mark of 1:12.58, which was set six years ago by Pagel Pegov of the Soviet Union. Presumably, Zhelezovski will no longer have to stay inside during recess.
As disappointing as some of the American men's performances were, the U.S. still placed three skaters among the top seven in the world. If anything, Heerenveen served notice that the U.S. skaters could be a major force at the '92 Games in Albertville, France.
Jansen, 23, and Thometz, 25, don't contract the same dread malady that has afflicted Blair: quititis. Darn it, just when we get to know you, you talk about skating off into the sunset. The decisions of these three athletes are crucial to the U.S. Winter Olympic effort. Blair's two medals and the silver in the men's 1,500 meters by Flaim amounted to half the U.S. total at Calgary. And Blair and Jansen would be favorites to win four medals in Albertville. (Flaim, 21, can be expected to stay active through the Games.)
Jansen earned the world's sympathy and admiration at Calgary when he tried to compete in both the 500 and 1,000—he fell in both—soon after his sister, Jane, had died of leukemia. He had been expected to win two Olympic medals. Said Jansen at Heerenveen, "I don't feel I have anything to prove. I've accomplished enough of my personal goals. If I don't have an Olympic medal, I can live with it."
Not even the principals know whether they'll be skating in '92. Blair is sending out mixed signals. "Having fun," she says, "is what life is about. So if I find I'm not having fun skating, that will be it."
Gee, is there anything we can do to make it fun?