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U.S. Olympic hopes blossomed at the world sprints

Bonnie Blair, the rising star of the U.S. speed skating team, was relaxing in Ste. Foy, Quebec, and reflecting on her career. "I have good days and bad days," she said, "but thank God the bad days are getting few and far between."

Last weekend at the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships at Ste. Foy, Blair, 22, had two very good, if not quite terrific, days. Blair whipped the sport's reigning grande dame, East Germany's Karin Enke-Kania, twice in the 500-meter sprint. Kania—who holds six of the eight women's speed skating marks, including the 500, and who won four medals at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo—captured both 1,000-meter races and claimed her sixth world sprint title. But Blair, who finished a close second overall, was thoroughly satisfied. "Kania's aware I'm coming on," she said.

The nipping-at-their-skates Americans also included the top U.S. male, Nick Thometz, 23, who finished second at the sprints, behind Japan's Akira Kuroiwa. Thometz, who won Saturday's 1,000-meter race, finally shed an unwanted rep for consistently skating out of the money—he had four straight fourth-place finishes in this competition dating to 1983, and came in fourth in the 1,000 at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. "I look at fourth as not a bad finish," he sniffs. "It's just I'm a lot better than that." Which he proved dramatically over the weekend.

But the real message that Blair and Thometz sent to the other 16 nations competing at Ste. Foy is that U.S. speed skating is returning from the dead. At Sarajevo not a single medal was won by an American speed skater. Worse, this debacle came on the heels of the 1980 Heiden Olympics in Lake Placid, where Eric won five golds and his teammates claimed three more medals. Now, thanks to Blair and Thometz, the Americans are cocky about Calgary. Experts are measuring Blair for gold in the 500 and 1,000, and perhaps the 1,500, and Thometz is expected to collect three medals of varying hue.

Blair was, quite literally, born to the sport. In 1964, when Eleanor Blair was about to give birth to Bonnie, husband Charlie drove her to the hospital in Cornwall, N.Y. He kept the engine running, though, since he was expected shortly in nearby Yonkers to time a speed skating meet. When Charlie heard over the P.A. at the meet that Eleanor had given birth to "another skater"—five of the six Blair children have held national titles—the old man looked pleased. Then it was back to his stopwatch.

When she began skating, Bonnie was so small her siblings put her skates on over her shoes. Soon after, she was competing in a different city nearly every weekend from November to April. Did all this risk Bonnie burnout? "Skating has always been a pleasure and a joy," she says. "I love to go fast and create the wind. It's fun to set goals, reach goals, reset goals. I don't see any torture in this at all."

For Thometz, too, skating is a family affair. Brother Kent, 28, was twice an Olympic alternate, and Nick has been competing since the age of seven. And while no world-class athlete enjoys being second best, the signs were clear when Blair and Thometz received their medals at Ste. Foy that the top rung may be only a step away.



America's top male skater, Thometz hopes to revive the spirit of Heiden at Calgary.



Blair's fast start and low-to-the-ice style compensate for her small (127 pounds) size.