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Yanks on The Move

Bonnie Blair and Nick Thometz could bring home the first U.S. medals since the days of Eric Heiden

Bonnie Blair skates for blood. Not that she's a vicious person; she's as bubbly as a Bonnie ought to be. But inside lurks a tiger, and when Blair steps on the ice, she competes with single-minded ferocity. Nick Thometz, of the men's U.S. Olympic speed skating team, skates as smoothly and cleanly as water tumbles down a mountain stream. He wins because he knows he will. He is, in fact, the fastest sprinter in the world and Blair is the swiftest woman, and they're good news for the U.S., because an American hasn't won an Olympic medal of any color in speed skating since 1980. The last time was at Lake Placid, when a 21-year-old phenomenon named Eric Heiden scooped up gold in all five speed skating events and set a world record and five Olympic records. If everything goes as it should in Calgary, the dearth of medals will become an abundance.

"I have very few doubts Bonnie will win gold," says Mike Crowe, coach of the U.S. team. "She has a real shot at the 500 and the 1,000, and for something in the 1,500." So does Thometz, whose toughest rival may well be his own teammate. Dan Jansen, though Jansen is recovering from mononucleosis.

Last March, at a special records meet at the indoor 400-meter track in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, Thometz skated to a 500-meter world record of 36.55 seconds—that's at a speed of more than 32 miles an hour. He also holds unofficial world marks—he set them last year at a meet in the Soviet Union—in the 500 (36.23) and the 1,000 (1:12.05). At the same Heerenveen meet, Blair set the women's world record of 39.43 in the 500 to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," sung by 16,000 ecstatic Dutch fans.

How is it that speed skating—never wildly popular in the U.S.—has produced such a pair? According to Crowe, who has coached Blair, 23, and Thometz, 24, since 1982, part of the answer is that they grew up competing in American pack-style racing rather than the Olympic—or metric—style, in which skaters race in pairs against the clock. In pack style, six or so contestants start together and jockey for position until the last lap, when they go all out for the finish. "The American system develops sprinters," says Crowe.

The other reason Blair and Thometz are so fast lies, of course, in their own personal drives. They share a number of common influences and traits. Both are the youngest of six children in Catholic families. All the children in their families skated, and they were raised in towns where youngsters spend their winters on rink ice and frozen lakes.

Blair grew up in a home where skating was a passion. "A couple of my brothers and sisters got figure skates for Christmas one year, and all they ever wanted to do was go fast." she says. A speed skating coach spotted the children at a public rink and invited them to compete in racing meets. By the time the family moved to Champaign, Ill., shortly after Bonnie was born, her five siblings were avid speed skaters, and she simply joined the pack.

A close-knit family, the Blairs drove to a different city every weekend for skating meets. Charles Blair, now a retired civil engineer, sharpened skate blades at the meets and timed races. While her brothers and sisters competed, Bonnie would sometimes fall asleep in her mother's lap in the bleachers. She usually won her own peewee heats easily while waving gaily to the crowd.

"Bonnie was a peewee forever," says her mother, Eleanor, "But when she was finally old enough to compete and have it count, she was up against [Olympians] Beth Heiden and Sarah Doctor." When many of her peers had already gone on to metric racing, Blair stuck with pack-style because that's what they skated at the Champaign rink. In December 1979, when she was 16, she entered her first metric race, a qualifying meet for the 1980 Olympic trials at the outdoor track in Milwaukee, at the time one of only two refrigerated 400-meter tracks in the country (the other was at Lake Placid).

Blair arrived to find that she was seeded last and, worse, that her racing partner had scratched. Sick with fear, she stepped on the ice alone and waited for the gun.

Qualifying time for the trials was 47 seconds for the 500, and as she came around the second curve. Blair saw the number 42 on the digital clock. With about 50 meters to go, she put her head down and in a burst finished in 46.5. "I just started to cry," she recalls. "Here were all these people who had worked years to qualify, and I do it the first time I get on a track."

A doting family and big brothers and sisters to chase have combined to produce a young woman who is at once fierce in competition and disarmingly ebullient. She's popular with her teammates, especially Dave Silk, an all-rounder from Butte, Mont., who, Bonnie says, is not only her boyfriend "but my best friend."

On the ice, though, Blair admits, "I'm aggressive. To me, to race is to go all out, every time." She pushes herself to keep pace behind her male teammates during practice, and she is constantly checking out her performance with coach Crowe: "How'd that turn look? What should my pulse be?"

Blair and Thometz make speed skating look like dancing. Their blades inscribe symmetrical S curves on the ice as they push off each skate with a nice fluidity. This poetic motion allows them to translate the full power of their strokes into forward momentum. The secret to winning races, Thometz says, "is learning to skate technically well even when your legs feel like they're going to blow up."

Increasingly American skaters have devoted themselves to honing technique rather than building strength. In Europe, speed skaters are subsidized throughout their careers, and they're often bigger, stronger, older and more experienced than U.S. skaters. Blair's principal competitors in Calgary will be a couple of powerful East Germans, Karin Kania (formerly Enke), who is 5'10" and 160 pounds, and Christa Rothenburger. Only 5'5" and 125 pounds, Blair will have to combat their raw power with a shotgun start that makes her so formidable in the sprints and sound technique. She never scrambles—what skaters call "running."

"Bonnie worked on her technique because she's small and she knew it was the only way to beat the Germans," says Crowe. Last year she easily won the World Cup titles for 500 and 1,000 meters and placed second overall in the World Sprint Championships. She was beaten only once in the 500 meters, by Rothenburger in her first event at the Sprints. "The next day I was paired with her I in the 500-meter event], and I just killed her," Blair says.

Where Blair shows a killer instinct, Thometz is serene and diffident, both on the ice and off. Blond and blue-eyed, he grew up in Minneapolis, a city with a Scandinavian accent, and though his family is of Yugoslav and German extraction, he displays a Nordic introspection and self-control. He began skittering around on the Minnesota ice with his brothers and sisters when he was only four. Later, Nick tagged along to speed skating practice with his brother Kent, who is five years older and was twice an Olympic alternate.

Very early the youngest Thometz showed a surprising ease on skates, yet his decision to become a speed skater was less a foregone conclusion than Blair's. The 5'9", 165-pound Thometz has a well-balanced body, and he moves with a feline sureness that has allowed him to excel at many sports. "I was always able to run faster than other kids," he says. "My parents aren't exactly athletic, so who knows where I got it from." He began racing pack-style at seven, and in junior high he ran track and played baseball, soccer and hockey. He graduated from high school with honors and made the dean's list in his first year at the University of Minnesota.

This is a young man with intelligence and natural athletic ability, but scaling the Olympian heights requires something more—a commitment. Thometz's commitment began in 1976 when he attended a regional training skating camp. He was only 13, but his precocious grace so impressed Peter Schotting, the U.S. team coach who was at the camp, that he invited the boy to Squaw Valley, Calif., to train with the national team. From then on, Thometz devoted himself to metric skating.

"I don't know why I decided," he says, considering how punishing the workouts were. "I thought. So this is what you have to go through to be that good." He muses for a while, his eyes clear and arresting even when he's lost in thought. "It seems so young to make a choice like that, doesn't it?"

Not for some Olympic events, like gymnastics or swimming, but speed skating is something of a late-bloomer's sport; it takes considerable stamina and musculature (witness his startlingly well developed thighs) to reach the top, and not surprisingly, Thometz had to wait a long time before his dedication paid off.

Beginning in 1983, he finished fourth in the World Sprints four years in a row, earning him the unwelcome nickname of Mr. Fourth. At the Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984, he came in a disappointing 14th in the 1,500, fifth in the 500 and fourth in the 1,000. "Fourth wasn't so bad." he insists now. But Thometz's record at Sarajevo was no worse than that of his teammates, none of whom won medals. Heiden, who is now a second-year medical student at Stanford University, says of their dismal performance: "We had such a good team before 1980 that the younger skaters never got a chance for a place on the national team and to compete internationally. Then the team all quit after Lake Placid, and the younger skaters just didn't have the experience."

Thometz and the rest of the U.S. team returned from Yugoslavia deeply discouraged. "After Sarajevo it looked like a long road to the next Olympics, and I didn't know if I could hang on or if I wanted to," he recalls.

But he did, and last year his skating underwent a significant transformation. He ran away with World Cup titles in the 500 and 1,000 meters, and he won the Golden Skate competition, which once signified the year-end championship, at both those distances, earning a pair of miniature speed skates cast in gold. He then narrowly missed winning the World Sprint championship in Sainte Foy, Quebec, when Japan's Akira Kuroiwa, who will be a strong rival in the Calgary Olympics, slipped past Thometz in the 1,000-meter final.

"It just clicked," Thometz says of his turnaround season. Crowe has a more specific explanation. "Nick started winning as soon as he started having confidence in his skating," he says. "Even before he got his confidence, he was strong, but early last season he skated some races right. Then in one he tightened up and ran. He realized the difference between skating and running from then on."

Thometz now practices his own private brand of visual imagery—a technique used by many athletes—to maintain his form through an entire race. In his mind he hears Crowe calling out his splits as he comes around the curve, and he imagines the sensation of skating with a long, efficient stride. His face lights up as he says, "Those races where you know you're I going good, that's a neat feeling. Then when you come across the finish and see a good time, it's the greatest feeling."

The best feeling of all will come when he pulls back the hood of his flashy racing skin and mounts the winner's podium at Calgary. Toward this end, Thometz and the rest of the team spent the summer training harder and longer than they ever have before. They did sessions of running sprints, running hills, running distance, bicycling hills and sprints, lifting weights to exhaustion and lifting weights for speed. (Blair can squat 240 pounds.) On dry land they simulated the motion of skating by performing the duck walk, which looks something like an imitation of Groucho Marx, and working on the slide board, a piece of Formica on which you glide back and forth in your stocking feet. In between were sets of diabolical exercises in which the skater stands on one leg and moves slowly up and down. Now that they're practicing on the ice, the quotidian torture hasn't abated; ice workouts have simply been added to the list.

"In a way I'm glad they did so badly in '84," says Crowe. "It made them hungry for medals." But trophies aren't the only thing motivating these athletes. They skate, at least in part, out of sheer exuberance. When assistant coach Dan Immerfall, who won his bronze in the 500 meters in 1976, tries to express what racing is like, his description sounds a bit mystical: "When everything seems to be going in slow motion, that's when it's a great race."

Blair puts it more simply: "Skating is joy. It's a solitary sport, one in which you can claim all the rewards as your own. Nobody makes you do it. It's just you."