Bonnie Blair has her own anthem and her own team uniform in Albertville. That's because Blair does something few other U.S. Winter Olympians can do—she wins gold medals. In the stands of the speed skating oval on Monday, 45 members of Blair's family swayed in unison in their purple team jackets and sang My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean. They overwhelmed the other spectators with their Bonnieness when Blair got the gold in the 500-meter speed skating event to become the first woman to win two Olympic 500's and the first American woman to win consecutive Winter Olympic titles.
Just after Blair crossed the watery finish line of L'Anneau Olympique in 40.33 and claimed the first gold medal of these Games for the U.S., she tore the hood from her head and shook out her hair. Blair, who's from Champaign, III., was determined to show herself as America's most productive, if not most recognizable, Winter Olympic athlete. Maybe, finally, she would even become a star. Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith seemed to think so, greeting her with kisses as she left the medal podium.
As the 27-year-old Blair lifted the hood from her head, what you saw was a brunette whose most distinguishing characteristics were a blaze of a smile and a heart like a furnace. For in her decisive victory over Ye Qiaobo, 27, of China, who skated to the silver medal in 40.51, and Germany's Christa Luding (the former Christa Rothenburger), who finished third with a time of 40.57, one sensed that Blair was just limbering up. With one gold medal secured, she was scheduled to compete in the 1,500-meter race on Wednesday, when she hoped to become the first American woman speed skater to win two gold medals in one Olympics. Two days later she would be one of the favorites in the 1,000 meters, her strongest event after the 500. "We're just beginning," she said after winning on Monday.
Actually, Blair's victory in the 500 was almost anticlimactic. Was there ever a question who would win? Blair is the world-record holder in the event—having set the mark of 39.10 four years ago at the Calgary Games—and she has not lost a World Cup 500 or 1,000 this season. Moreover, she has been winning by such yawning margins that no one appears to be close to her equal. There were, however, two ways that Blair could have lost on Monday: She could have caught an edge and sprawled on the track, or she could have picked up a rare mountain parasite and been unable to compete.
Blair's form was so good that U.S. Olympic speed skating coach Peter Mueller, the 1976 Olympic champion in the 1,000, was rendered almost useless. All Mueller, 37, did was give Blair an occasional brain massage.. "I don't have to teach her much," he said last week. "I just keep her head fresh, get her in condition and let Bonnie be Bonnie."
Mueller's easy manner with Blair is at least partly responsible for her resurgence after a disappointing 1990-91 season, when she was plagued by bronchitis and finished fifth at the 1991 World Sprint Championships in Inzell, Germany. Mueller was named the Olympic coach last April largely at the instigation of Blair and the leading hope among the American men. Dan Jansen. The chemistry between Mueller and Blair was clear on Monday as they skated in circles, arm in arm, following her victory. "She is a killer," Mueller had said earlier.
How many athletes are so reliable under the pressure of an Olympics? Yet who besides her close friends and relatives would recognize Blair if she walked down the street? "Nobody really knows what I look like," she says. "I always have my hood on." Certainly Blair hopes that the Albertville Games will help her attain a higher profile and attract more commercial endorsements. Perhaps that's why she skated in Oakley sunglasses despite the approaching darkness. "Things have gone O.K. for me," she says about her endorsements. "I'm not Michael Jordan by any means. I'm in this because I love what I'm doing."
In the days leading up to the 500, Blair displayed a relaxed certainty. These are her third Olympics. As an unknown at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, she finished a respectable eighth in the 500. As a contender in Calgary in '88, she was the only double medalist for the U.S., winning the gold in the 500 and taking the bronze in the 1,000. At Albertville all the U.S. speed skaters, men and women, considered Blair their pacesetter. If she was feeling pressure, however, she wasn't showing it.
Certainly Ye crossed her mind, and maybe Luding did, too. An old adversary, Luding was an intriguing presence who brought more of a touch of nostalgia than anything else. Luding, 32, took a sabbatical two years ago to have a child, and she is just returning to world-class form. Now that her talents have diminished, she and Blair have become friends. Luding sent Blair a birth announcement. Blair responded with a gift.
If the lack of a clear challenger partly accounted for Blair's somewhat slow time, then so did the unseasonably warm weather, which made the track a wet mess. Skating with Angela Hauck of Germany, Blair nonetheless strode evenly into the critical first turn and then blistered it, drawing tightly to the rubber markers on the curve and then shooting into a long stride. According to Mueller, that stride makes her "the best technician in I he world over the sprint distance, man or woman. She's real dynamic; she gets everything out of her stroke. It's like she was born on the ice."
Although Blair and Hauck were only the fifth pair (of 17) to race, Blair's performance all but ended the competition. She glided by Mueller and gave him a thunderous high five. Then she raised her arms as she turned toward the stands, where all 45 relatives were waiting, including her 73-year-old mother, Eleanor. "I'm shaking all over," Eleanor said. "I held my breath for too long."
The noise and verve of the Blair contingent resembled that of a whole nation. Or at least a city. The group arrived at the oval in a double-decker bus, with two of Bonnie's male cousins waving an American Hag out the windows and howling her name. They all wore purple-and-white jackets, which were inscribed with her name, the date and the place.
The party was organized by one of Bonnie's first cousins, Kathie Murphy, 46, of New York City. Bonnie got tickets for her relatives through a travel agent, and her brother Rob had the jackets made in Dallas. "Family and friends, and friends of family," said second cousin Regina Pfeifer of Holtsville, N.Y., filing into the oval with her five children.
"They've been planning this for about a year." said Bonnie. "I knew then that if I didn't skate well, I would disappoint a lot of people, and I felt like I didn't want to let them down."
The Blair clan did not set eyes on Bonnie in Albertville until she set foot on the ice. She kept to herself in preparation for the 500, refusing to dine even with her mother and her sister Susie. "It's all right," she said. "I get to see them the rest of the year. Bonnie made it very clear whom she was skating for: herself. "Me first." she said. "The rest, my team and my country, follows behind."
After the medal ceremony, Bonnie consented to a celebratory dinner. The entire group headed for St. Michel's, a local restaurant where everyone could watch replays of the race on one of several televisions. Bonnie had studied her record-breaking performance in Calgary over and over in preparation for these Games. "Being the underdog and never having won before was a very special moment." she said. "This time I knew what to expect. But it's very different when you can come back and win again."
As very few Americans know.