Interstate 74 lies like a licorice whip across central Illinois. This is Middle America, what weathermen call "our nation's midsection," the country's symbolic center of gravity. And so a 90-mile twist of I-74 takes one from the American bellwether of Peoria, past the felicitous municipality of Normal and into the hometown of our most gilded Olympic heroine, WELCOME TO CHAMPAIGN, the sign begins, giving way to staccato word bursts: HOMETOWN OF BONNIE BLAIR; OLYMPIC LEGEND; PLEASE BUCKLE UP.
Please buckle up. Between sports and real life, life still gets the last word here. Weeks before Bonnie Blair won the first of her five Olympic gold medals, more than any other American woman has ever won, this item appeared in a Champaign church bulletin: "St. Matthew's Parish is proud of parishioner Bonnie Blair, the United States' #1 woman speed skater. Our prayers are with you Bonnie. Good Luck in Calvary! Bingo captain for January 6 is Dena Morgan."
Now, those 1988 Winter Games were held in Calgary, the Canadian cow town, not on Calvary, the site of Christ's crucifixion. But if the typo wasn't enough to put sport in its proper context, there was always Blair's placement in the bulletin, penultimate to the...bingo captaincy. In a sport that demands perfect balance, is it any wonder where Bonnie Blair got her uncommon equilibrium?
"Bonnie doesn't know she's a celebrity," says her mother, Eleanor. "She sees herself as a regular person." And how many athletes have that backward? Deion Sanders doesn't know he's a regular person; he sees himself as a celebrity. In an age of larger-than-life "personalities," Blair is well aware of the truth: Life is a larger-than-she personality.
December 19, 1994
For seven years her brother Rob has borne a tumor on the left side of his brain. It is inoperable. He is frequently felled by seizures, each one like a stroke, leaving the 39-year-old to learn, again and again and again, how to use the right side of his body.
"The stronger I am, the longer I'll survive," he says. "And I plan on beating it. I watch what Bonnie does, and that just feeds into me. She has said that I've inspired her, and that's nice of her to say. But I've gotten a lot more from her example than the other way around."
Bonnie Blair owns a time-share in the international spotlight: She gets it for two weeks every Olympiad, and then they ask her to leave. Her life has been a furious blur of flashing blades, like a Benihana chef's, but when she retires from competition in March just before she turns 31, it will not be as a wealthy woman. No one gets into speed skating to make a pile. "There's hardly any money to be gotten out of it," says Rob, a former North American short-track champion. "Unfortunately." He pauses. "Boy," he says finally, a lightbulb buzzing to life above his head. "Did we ever screw up!" And then he laughs this Gatling-gun laugh, the one all members of the impossibly large Scottish-Irish Blair clan seem to laugh all the time.
"We do it because we love what we're doing," Bonnie says of speed skaters. "I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would accomplish what I have in the sport. I can walk away with that and be totally content. And more so. I never got into it to make money. I never dreamed of getting into speed skating to do a commercial or public-speaking engagements. Some people are lucky if those things happen. But it doesn't happen to everyone."
It doesn't? The Nike deal is not an athlete's inalienable right? No, the only Olympic skater who got money from Nike in 1994 was...Tonya Harding. The Olympic skater who was "going to Disney World" was Nancy Kerrigan, who didn't even wait for the parade to end before declaring it "the most corniest thing I've ever done."
"Bonnie would have been thrilled to pieces to be in that parade," says Eleanor Blair, sounding like a mother. Rather than redeem for cash the two golden tokens she won in Lillehammer last February, Blair remained in Europe after the Olympics, competing without pause on the World Cup circuit for a month before returning to her town house near the national speed skating center in West Allis, Wis., just outside Milwaukee.
Blair shares Milwaukee with a set of this year's evil twins, Brewer owner Bud Selig, Scroogian symbol of the baseball strike, and Buck rookie Glenn Robinson, unwitting emblem of greed for his landmark $100 million salary demand. "They probably love what they do, too," says Blair, declining your invitation to denounce the players and owners, the strikers and pikers, in professional sports. "But there's a big paycheck behind it. I mean, Glenn Robinson"—she exhales deeply—"I really have a hard time understanding that. Our sports are so different. People have said professionalism and amateurism are drawing closer together. Well," she giggles like a Gatling gun, "I think they've gone in opposite directions again."
For three years and 50 weeks of every quadrennium, Olympic speed skaters are cheered only by their families and each other. Which may be why so many of them are as close as a foot inside a sock inside a shoe inside a skate—the way Blair dressed at age two, when the baby of the family began skating in the hand-me-down gunboats of her five older siblings. Asked to name her fondest memory in four Olympics, she selects her first gold medal victory, a world-record performance in the 500 meters at Calgary that fell .1 of a second short of breaking the women's 39-second barrier.
But, Blair adds immediately, her tensest moment in Lillehammer was watching star-crossed teammate Dan Jansen as he won his only gold medal, in his fourth Olympic Games: "I think DJ's performance was very powerful." She agonized, as well, through the races of her boyfriend, Olympic teammate Dave Cruikshank. If this bunch were a baseball team, they would be 25 players in one cab, and they would all pile out like circus clowns. Athletes everywhere should be taking notes, but instead—as her eldest sister, Mary, points out—"there are people who still don't even know who Bonnie Blair is."
So who is she? "You can talk all day about her accomplishments, but two things impress me most about Bonnie," says her coach, Nick Thometz. "One is her longevity: When she retires, she will have been on top from 1988 to 1995, and that's because of her work habits and lifestyle. Secondly—and I'm around her all the time—she's the same person that she was before her success. That's real refreshing for me, and I would think for the American public. I'm tired of seeing athletes make incredible amounts of money and become real...cocky. I guess I've always been attracted to the more modest types."
And so, SI honors Bonnie Blair as its Sportswoman of the Year, for what her brother aptly describes as "her example." She stands as a 5'4", 130-pound rebuke to every sucker who said he would play the game for nothing but won't suit up for a cent less than $68 million; to every slob who complained of unwanted attention, then drove off with the vanity plates spelling out his nickname; and to every Just-Win-Baby boor, be he in the owner's box or the AD's office or the Little League dugout. Just win, baby, is about all she does, but that's not why she does it. Winning isn't everything, or the only thing, or necessarily anything.
Sure, Blair whipped the rest of the field in her signature events, the 500 and 1,000 meters, at Lillehammer, giving her more gold medals than any other woman Olympian in American history. (Indeed, only four American men—track and field's Carl Lewis and Ray Ewry, swimming's Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi—have won more Olympic gold medals than Blair.) But she also entered the 1,500 in her free time, finishing fourth, competing for what she calls "the thrill of competition," an interesting variation on the traditional thrill-of-victory saw. She could have retired before the world's media in Norway, but she has chosen instead to skate through the 1995 world sprint championships in West Allis. Two thousand five hundred people will attend that competition, most of them, it would seem, immediate members of Blair's hypersupportive family.
So she continues to endure six days a week of training—running, biking, weightlifting—and as much as six months a year of travel, eating Thanksgiving dinner each November with the Eckart family of Inzell, Germany, where she trains, rather than with the Blair family of Champaign. She regrets that her hometown visits are far too infrequent. There is a street named for Blair in Champaign, but she has never even been on it. She isn't even sure if it's a Street, or a Lane, or a Boulevard, or what. "Hmmmm," she says, when asked this question. "Bonnie Blair...Drive, maybe? I think it's Drive, if I'm not mistaken."
Don't even know who Bonnie Blair is? Well, she can be aptly summarized in one word: We think it's drive, if we are not mistaken.
Bonnie Blair Drive is a few blocks long, a dozen or so handsome homes in a shiny new subdevelopment. "I sold that house," says Eleanor Blair, a real estate agent, pointing to a trim two-story. "I told 'em, 'Look, if you're gonna name a street for my daughter, you gotta give me some listings on it.' " Her laugh explodes, filling the car like a detonated air bag.
One gets the idea that Mom put the Drive in Bonnie Blair long before Champaign did. The 76-year-old native of Queens, N.Y., still goes to work most days. "It keeps me off the streets and outta the pool halls," Eleanor says before turning the grille of her Buick LeSabre toward the indoor rink at the University of Illinois. "We traveled this route many, many times," she says. "I could drive it in my sleep."
Just inside the arena's front doors a bronze plaque embedded in the wall commemorates Blair's gold-bronze performance at Calgary. Next to it a second bronze plaque commemorates her two-gold performance at Albertville in '92. A conspicuous space remains, left there before Blair embarked for Lillehammer, for yet another plaque. On the ice, nine kids skate in circles.
"When Bonnie was 15 or 16, there was talk of closing this rink," says Eleanor, her breath visible in the refrigerated air. "She was winning a lot of races at the time, but she was having problems, falling down a lot. She was very active in school. She was on the student council and she was a cheerleader. Those required a lot of time, so she had to make a decision, whether to keep skating or not. She asked her father and me, but we told her, 'You have to make this one yourself.' "
And so she decided. "At some point, the rest of us continued on with our lives and skating became secondary," says her sister Mary, 49, a former national senior champion. "Bonnie dedicated her whole life to it."
"I don't think people realize the self-discipline it has taken," says Rob. "All of the other kids had moved out of the house by the time she started training. Mom and Dad weren't waking her up at 5:30 and telling her to skate or bike or run. She did it all on her own."
In fact, Charles (Chile) Blair insisted that his children's first priority be college. A New York native like Eleanor, he graduated from Yale with an engineering degree in 1935, the peak of the Depression, and he knew well the difference the diploma had made in his own life. But if Bonnie was to make the 1984 Olympic team, she would have to train in Europe, forestalling her higher education. She raised the $7,000 for the trip by herself, soliciting local businesses without luck until the Champaign Policemen's Benevolent Association kicked in the entire amount. Dad softened on his rules, as dads always do with the youngest child. Blair eventually went to Sarajevo and finished eighth in the 500.
Four years later she won the gold and broke the world record in Calgary. Afterward, Chile Blair, then newly stricken with lung cancer, sat down with Bonnie and talked enthusiastically about what she might still accomplish in speed skating. She wondered if she couldn't be the first woman to skate 500 meters in under 39 seconds. "That has always motivated her," says Thometz. "Thirty-nine seconds has been as real a barrier for women speed skaters as the four-minute mile was for Roger Bannister."
And so, as the Champaign tour continues, we travel the roadway that Bonnie bikes along whenever she comes home. "Here's the college she hasn't quite graduated from," says Mom pointedly, pulling into the parking lot at Parkland College, where Blair is two courses shy of a two-year degree. "When she's home, she inline skates in this lot." She walks into the college center and points out, somewhat unnecessarily, the eight-foot-tall painting of the not-quite alumna that hangs in a lounge area. We then pile back into the car, its bumper sticker reading CHAMPAIGN POLICEMEN'S FAVORITE SPEEDER—BONNIE BLAIR.
Two minutes away, just off the school's immaculate campus, the Champaign Park District has erected a monument to 25 area athletes who have participated in the Olympics. Eleanor Blair sizes up her daughter's name, etched on a marble tile on the Illinois prairie. Her raincoat is pulled tight against the mid-November cold. The inscription reads THE THING WE LONG FOR, THAT WE ARE FOR ONE TRANSCENDENT MOMENT.
Chile Blair died on Christmas Day, 1989. Eleanor and the six kids went home from the hospital and numbly opened presents. For so many years the Blair house was filled with people and laughter, but now the kids were grown and only visiting Champaign, their new homes scattered across the country.
Standing before the Olympic monument in 1994, Eleanor is silent for a bit. Then, one transcendent moment.
"Bonnie has given me so much," she says, wind-whipped in the cold. "I've been all over the world, done some of the most wonderful things." Her eyes puddle. "She's opened a whole new life for me in my old age."
"I can basically cry at the drop of a hat," says Bonnie, who wishes this wasn't necessarily so. "A couple of weeks ago I was honored by a women's sports foundation in New York. When the dinner was over, Mom starts getting all emotional: 'Oh, you've given me so much in my....' And I'm like, Oh, god, Mom, don't start, ya know?"
But it's too late. Blair's chin is aquiver at the memory alone. This is over lunch at a German restaurant in Waukesha, Wis. When the schnitzel plates are cleared, a sweet white-haired woman in her 60's approaches from the next table.
"May I just shake your hand, Bonnie?" the woman asks softly.
"I think you're just—oh, I don't know—I think you're just a...a neat person."
"You're a good, good person."
"Thank you very much."
"This is my mom," says the woman, gesturing to the table behind Bonnie. "She's 97 years old."
Blair turns in her chair and shakes the mother's hand. "Hiiii," she sings to the silent, slightly stooped old woman. "How are you? It's nice to see you." The first woman now apologizes for interrupting, and Blair says, "No, no, that's all right. It was nice to see you. Thank you." Blair turns back to her own table.
"Urn," she says, trying to act casual, but there goes the chin again. "So anyways...I can't remember what I was talking about." Her eyes are twin pools. She doesn't blink or they'll spill.
It is tempting to say that Blair handles fame so well because she isn't all that famous. But the fact is, few men or women ever know such celebrity. Eleanor Blair literally has her work cut out for her at home, grocery bags filled with newspaper and magazine clippings from this year alone. They will go into custom-made scrapbooks the size and weight of large suitcases. Perhaps it's only the glue, but one's head spins while examining the wildly varied contents on each page.
You spend a few minutes with Andy Rooney, who said in a wet-blanket 60 Minutes piece in 1992 that he was tired of watching Olympic athletes being interviewed on TV with "their grandmothers." The accompanying video showed Eleanor chatting away with Bonnie and her 46-year-old sister, Suzy. Suzy wrote a nice letter to the CBS curmudgeon, calling the error to his attention. Rooney responded with a note of epic apology, now in the scrapbook. "I didn't mean to suggest that either of you looked like a grandmother," Rooney wrote to Suzy, a tad defensively. "Not that there's anything wrong with the way grandmothers look," he continued, scrambling like Fran Tarkenton. "Bonnie made us all very proud...."
After the last Olympics, Blair was flown first-class from Oslo to Los Angeles to do The Tonight Show. She was helicoptered immediately from an LAX rooftop to NBC in Burbank, a route that took her "right over the Hollywood sign," as she gleefully points out. The next day she flew back to Europe to compete. Upon returning to the States, she was given parades in Illinois and parties in Wisconsin. The latter issued her, unsolicited, a new set of license plates for her Jeep: GOLD X5. "It takes most people awhile to figure out what they mean," she says.
Blair met her third president this year, grand-marshaled the Indianapolis 500 and was honored at both a Chicago Cub and a Chicago Bull game. Telling, isn't it, that this last experience was the most revelatory? "The Bulls game was unbelievable," she says. "Especially in the old stadium. The power and the emotion in that arena were just...electrifying. And it lasted the whole game. And it wasn't even the playoffs! What a great atmosphere these guys get to compete in through the whole season."
Scrapbook stories spell Blair's name in Arabic, in Cyrillic, in Chinese, in Japanese and in Norwegian. Bonnie Blair is a crossword-puzzle answer ("40 Across: Wonder Woman on Speed Skates") and a Jeopardy! clue. "She's been a clue at least twice," notes Eleanor, who watches the program every day. "The last time, she was Final Jeopardy!" And yet Final Jeopardy! is the most difficult clue on the quiz show, which suggests that Blair is still largely unknown to a vast segment of Americans.
Let other athletes position themselves as "entertainers," free safeties masquerading as Fred Astaire. Blair knows that fame is poured from a gravy boat: It is not the substance of sport. "Which isn't to say that I don't appreciate being recognized," she is quick to add at the end of lunch. "Because I do. I really do. I mean, this lady"—Blair gestures toward the white-haired woman at the table behind her—"what she said earlier, it's very touching." The chin is going again. "And I appreciate that. And I know it won't last the rest of my life, so I'm going to enjoy it."
The waitress asks Blair for her autograph. Blair signs the place mat. You sign the $30 check.
Let other athletes hold out for eight figures, then speak of money as just a way of keeping score. Get this: For Blair, scores are still a way of keeping score.
Twenty-seven days after the closing ceremony in Lillehammer, Blair skated in a 500-meter invitational competition in Calgary, the site of her first gold. "It's strange," she says of the race, "it's a split-second time, but I knew as soon as I crossed the finish line, it was a world record." It was a beat before she found the digital time clock, however, and saw the giant numbers in Day-Glo: 38.99. A career summarized in circles—five gold medals evoking five Olympic rings—had come full circle on the Olympic Oval in Calgary.
"Huge," says Thometz of the Bannister-like breakthrough. "And she worked how many years to achieve it?"
Fifty people witnessed what Blair had worked all her life to accomplish. A sequoia fell in the forest and did not make a sound. "Now that I think about it, I wonder," says Blair. "What might have happened if the place had been jam-packed?" But in the end, this is the difference between Da Bulls and Da Blairs: For Blair there is only the game, none of the trappings. In that sense her entire career has prepared her for what many pro athletes and owners are only now learning: that when they disappear from the scene, the world does not cease spinning and just float there, like a knuckleball. The game is over; life carries on.
When Rob Blair has a seizure—he could have one right now on the telephone, he says—he falls to the ground and endures for two minutes until the storm passes. Then as quickly as he can, he continues selling pipe in Dallas, exhibiting his own kind of Bonnie Blair Drive. You ask him if it doesn't ever grow tiresome to talk about his kid sister. On the contrary, he tells you. The frequent questions are calming, like waves lapping at his ankles.
"It's nice," he says. "Because all I hear are nice things. People always ask how she can be so unchanged, such an everyday person. All I can tell them is, it's not a facade. What you see is what you get. And that's a neat feeling. She's a special person. And there's not much more I can say but that I'm real proud of her."
And yet when every other word in sports is hype or tripe, doesn't that say something? Doesn't that say everything?