The Last Lap

After racing to another world title, Bonnie Blair leaves the U.S. facing a big chill in her sport
February 27, 1995

It has come to this: There is nothing left to say about Bonnie Blair, and not enough time in which to say it. Her story remains as corny and changeless as the Illinois prairie—except that she won the women's world sprint speed skating championship on Sunday, broke her own 500-meter world record the previous weekend and will retire on March 19, never to return to the sport she still rules. This is not a boxing-style "retirement." No, in speed skating only the Zambonis resurface.

Since she won the first of her five Olympic gold medals, with a world record at Calgary in 1988, people have asked Blair why she wanted to continue skating. "Now," she says, "people are asking, 'Why do you want to stop?' "

Why? Perhaps it's because her career came neatly full-oval this month. Some 20 years ago Blair met another kid skater, name of Dan Jansen. "I had a crush on her and the whole thing," he recalls. They became world-famous together in Calgary, their stories forever familiar after Jansen fell the day his sister died and Blair set her first world record, 39.10 in the 500.

She broke that record last March, with a 38.99 in Calgary. That record, in turn, was broken two weeks ago when Susan Auch of Canada skated a 38.94, also in Calgary. But it wasn't Auch alone who broke the record, for she was paired with Blair, who beat her to the finish line in an even swifter 38.69. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Blair would win her third world sprint championship on Sunday in her last race in the U.S., in her adopted home of Milwaukee. And that Jansen would scream out her split times from the infield. And that Auch would say admiringly, "She brings out the best in her competition, because we're always out chasing her."

Afterward Blair alone was typically, maddeningly unimpressed. "I was hoping I could have gone a little faster in the 500," she said of Sunday's winning time of 39.54. "But, hey, I'll take it." She shrugged. Wall maps of Florida do not have lower keys.

Which is where the Blair Bunch comes in. Long before the Loud Family appeared on Saturday Night Live, there was the Blair Bunch, now bloated to some 300 members. They filled 12% of the 2,600 seats in the Pettit National Ice Center for each of last weekend's two sessions. They qualified for the convention rate at the Marriott. They clanged corporate-sponsored cowbells—each bore the Mizuno logo—a testament to their own odd, auxiliary fame. And so Sunday brought a bittersweet epiphany for Eleanor Blair, the 76-year-old matriarch of both Bonnie and the Bunch. "This is the end of my celebrity status," she lamented with a laugh.

The same, alas, might be said of the entire U.S. speed skating program. A two-year-old child can tell you all you need to know about speed skating in America over the last three Olympiads. "My daughter knows skating very well," says Jansen of his own two-year-old, Janie. "She sees pictures on TV and says 'Daddy' or 'Bonnie.' "

But Daddy retired a few months after winning a gold medal in Lillehammer—it was one year ago last Saturday—and now Bonnie will also be bid bon voyage, leaving the U.S. speed skating program with more than a few nasty gaps. "It's natural to have a void in the talent pool," says LeRoy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "But we need to void the void."

Walker spoke with some urgency on Sunday night. For what Blair and Jansen have been to U.S. speed skating, speed skating has been to the U.S. Winter Olympic team. Which is to say, nearly everything. Since 1980, speed skaters have accounted for almost half of the U.S.'s medals at the Winter Games—22 of 50. And yet the sport is so alarmingly under-funded that there is scarcely enough money for airfare to send skaters to Europe. Says U.S. Olympian Brendan Eppert, "I have to go to my family for money."

"We have no feeder system," continues his Olympic teammate Dave Cruikshank, whose 21st-place finish last weekend was the highest among American men. "We don't have enough coaches...."

"I'm not going to tell you we'll have another five medals in our future," says Casey FitzRandolph, 20, the most promising young American male skater, "but I do think we have a couple of people capable of medaling in '98."

By most accounts, however, there will be very few delays at the metal detector when the U.S. team returns from Nagano, Japan, in 1998. "Two thousand two is a better bet [for medals]," says U.S. sprint coach Nick Thometz. "Most federations take eight to 10 years to build up again."

In the meantime the U.S. will pin its hopes—and its medals, if any—on the Blair apparent, a not-quite-unknown 19-year-old bicycling bass-guitarist named Christine Witty. "Chris Witty has tons of talent," says Auch. "The skating community has always known about her. You guys might not have."

Indeed the American press learned just last weekend of Witty's own quintessentially American story. Witty—who won the 500 meters at the junior world championships last year, after competing in the 1,000 at Lillehammer and coming in 23rd—first raced on a flooded, frigid baseball diamond not more than a few miles from Bud Selig's office in Milwaukee County Stadium. She also narrowly missed making the 1992 Summer Olympic cycling team and may still pedal the 1,000-meter time trial in Atlanta in '96.

It would be a difficult diversion to choose, for last weekend Witty was seventh overall in the worlds as a skater, including a second-place finish to Blair in the 1,000 on Saturday. When asked if there will ever be another Blair, Witty replied emphatically. "I think there will be." She was talking about herself, and her quiet confidence sounded familiar. "Bonnie has inspired me," acknowledged Witty. "She inspires me to this day."

Blair draws her own inspiration from her brother Rob, who persists through life with an inoperable brain tumor. She admires Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed skater and humanitarian. She adores "DJ," Dan Jansen, who served as her surrogate coach in the 1,000 meters on Sunday afternoon—while Rob Blair, Koss and Blair's boyfriend, Cruikshank, looked on.

For her last race in her home country, Blair was paired with Witty. Naturally Thometz could only keep track of one of his skaters. So Blair asked Jansen to "coach" her, and he stood on the backstretch calling out the split times as she left Witty—and a vapor trail—behind her. Blair's time of 1:19.52 was .09 of a second off the track record, set on Saturday by...Blair.

Blair also set the 500-meter track record on Saturday, with a 39.13. Absurdly, Blair could again break her own world record in the 500 on the very day she retires. After World Cup events in Germany and Norway, her final race will be on the fast track in Calgary, the day after her 31st birthday. She could well make her retired-in-their-prime counterparts, Michael Jordan and Jim Brown, look like they stayed too long at the ball.

Then this extraordinary career will be over, and the only clock remaining in her life will be a biological one. Blair would like to marry, have children, coach adolescent skaters and perhaps return to school. "I'm sure she'll spend some time doing what I've been doing," says the banquet-hopping Jansen. "That is, being America's Guest."

One thing is certain. "I'm definitely going to miss hearing the crack of that gun," says Blair. And time was, this had her mother worried. "You wonder if it'll screw up the rest of her life," Eleanor had asked, in the rare quiet of her own home in Champaign, Ill., earlier this winter. "I mean, what does she do for an encore?"

The answer became clear in a bitter-cold and cacophonous arena last weekend. Encores are for rock stars who don't know when to quit. Blair exits, as Sinatra once did, at the peak of her powers. Unlike Sinatra, Blair will never return.

How do we know? On Sunday evening Blair might have literally made a Sinatra exit: The houselights went dark at the Pettit Center, and she performed in a spotlight, skating one last victory lap. Then Blair was given a microphone. But all she did was dutifully thank the crowd, thank the volunteers, thank her mother.

Finally, she wished a happy 40th birthday to her brother Rob, who put a thumb and forefinger to his eyes, plugging tears.

Then she left the ice. There is no encore. There is no need.

PHOTOBUCK MILLERWhether on the ice or off (top left, with Thometz), Blair puts on neither airs nor socks. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWithout Blair and Jansen, U.S. hopes shift to Witty (above). PHOTOBUCK MILLER[See caption above.] PHOTOBUCK MILLERLike Bonnie, Eleanor (top, seated) and the 300-strong Blair Bunch were in full bloom in Milwaukee. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)