The Audio engineer needed a mike check. "Bonnie, could we get a level on you?"
"Bonnie Blair, speed skater," Bonnie Blair said.
On too few hours' sleep, with several celebratory pints of Norway's answer to the product that made Milwaukee famous still coursing through her, the most gilded American woman in Olympic history spent last Thursday pinballing from interview to interview. The schedule had been set up by her agent, a guy from Advantage International named L. Parkes Brittain III. First came a chat with Harry Smith at the Farm, the set from which CBS anchored the Winter Games. There followed a mass session with the media at the Main Press Center. ("She just won two gold medals," a U.S. Olympic Committee press officer told a security guard who had regarded Blair's credentials with skepticism when she tried to enter the building. "Don't those count?") Now, as John Naber chatted with her while preparing to interview her for the TNT network, Blair was trying to portray herself not as a gold medalist, not even as an Olympian, but as just a humble speed skater. Blair had now won five Olympic gold medals, surpassing sprinter Evelyn Ashford, swimmer Janet Evans and diver Pat McCormick, winners of four each. But her achievements had left her largely unaltered.
Bonnie Blair, speed skater, should think nothing of sauntering up to Viktor Petrenko, the Ukrainian who won the men's figure skating gold medal for the Unified Team at the 1992 Winter Games, to discuss the finer points of blade sharpening or some such. Instead, when she espied elite athletes like Petrenko in the Olympic Village last week, she was as slack-jawed as she had been back at her first Olympics a decade ago in Sarajevo. "I don't see myself as being up on a podium," she said, "but I see them that way."
Yet she was up on that podium again last week, and that's why everyone shot questions at her. They wanted to know if she would be retiring. (Not until after next season, because the world championships will be in her current home of Milwaukee, and she wants to skate in front of the home folks.) They wanted to know which American Olympians she was most thrilled to have joined the company of. (She ticked off names, but not the ones you would expect; she mentioned only speed skaters Beth Heiden, Sheila Young and Sarah Docter.) They wanted to know if there was anything left for her to accomplish. (There is: breaking the 39-second barrier in her specialty, the 500 meters.) Milwaukee, speed skating, a few hundredths of a second—those are the most important things to her, the borders of Blair's world.
"People ask me, 'Can't you get her to say anything else?' " says U.S. speed skating publicist Susan Shaw, who was Blair's liaison at the Games. "But that's who she is. She takes one race at a time and doesn't seem to have a sense of the big picture. If she does, she doesn't tell us."
The press tried to get at something more cosmic, nonetheless. What kind of legacy are you going to leave?
"I don't know if I really understand your question," she said.
What does it mean to have more golds than any other American woman?
"I really don't know what to say," she said.
What does all you've accomplished say about you?
"You stumped me," she said after a long pause.
She went on and tried her best to answer; none of her responses was meant to be off-putting. But for daring to come to Norway without a compelling personal story line like that of her friend and teammate Dan Jansen, Blair put off some of her interrogators just the same. "She used to remind you of your little sister," wrote some misanthrope from Chicago. "Now she has turned into your spinster aunt."
That was no spinster aunt giving a passionate kiss to her boyfriend, U.S. speed skater David Cruikshank, after she won the 500. Will Bonnie and Dave take the big step and formally turn Cruikshank—"Crooker," as Blair calls him—into the John Lloyd of speed skating? Blair dismissed reports that there's a knot-tying in the offing. It's nothing but "my mom spreading rumors," she said. Actually, it was Bonnie's sister Suzy, one of the six kids of Eleanor Blair and her late husband, Charlie, who had announced her own engagement on Valentine's Day, and Bonnie suspected that "there are so many of us, maybe Mom got us confused."
On the day Bonnie was born, Charlie dropped Eleanor off at the hospital and then went off to time a meet at a nearby skating rink. Bonnie was something of an afterthought in the Blair family scheme, coming 21 years after Chuck, the Blairs' first child, and seven years after Angela, their fifth. All these elder siblings became a canopy of extra moms and dads under which Bonnie grew up. "It's not like I had my brothers and sisters to play Monopoly with," she says. "I was a tagalong. My nickname was One of the Gang."
Like many lastborns, Blair was a resourceful child, disinclined to make trouble for parents who already bore the scars of child-rearing. "I was too scared to do anything wrong," she says. Her eagerness not to disappoint and willingness to do what she was told made her uncommonly coachable. "No matter what the competition, no matter what the training routine, I'd try to find a goal within it and try to better it," she says. The announcer at the Vikingskipet skating hall happened to be intoning the track record when Blair approached the start for the Feb. 23 running of the 1,000 meters, the event in which she won her second gold of this Olympics and her fifth overall. Seizing on the figure (1:19.97), Blair resolved to beat it.
Having watched Jansen win his gold medal in the 1,000 helped too. Blair plotted out the same race he had skated. She wanted to get to 600 meters as soon as possible and then hang on the rest of the way. Skating in the second pair, she hit the 600 mark in 46.92 and surpassed the track record by putting a 1:18.74 up on the scoreboard for someone to beat. "I don't know if that's good enough," she told her coach, Nick Thometz, "but that's all I had." The time stood, easily so. She had won her first three golds, in Calgary and Albertville, by a total of .22 of a second; golds four and five came in comparative routs, by .36 and 1.38, respectively.
How did Blair come to Lillehammer and accomplish this? Give her enough time with the question, and she will tell you: She has been so successful for so long because she approaches every race the same way, whether it's an Olympic final or some weekend derby in Wauwatosa. It's all very simple: You can't count on winning, so you have to make it happen.
After Blair set her world record of 39.10 in the 500 at the 1988 Games, a jeweler in Champaign, Ill., where she grew up, fashioned a necklace for her out of 39 diamonds. Good thing you didn't skate a 38, Suzy told her; then the necklace would have only 38 diamonds. That's not the sort of trade-off Blair gives any thought to. Shoppers in some parts of the country will soon be able to find a Kellogg's Corn Flakes box adorned with Blair's image as a result of her deeds at these Games, but endorsement offers have never been quick to find her. "Those sort of things happen or don't happen," she says, quickly adding that, if they should happen, she would welcome them only because they would be good for her sport.
We live in an era in which a big sneaker company recently scrambled to align itself with a female skater essentially because she was under the threat of indictment. Blair may not be notorious enough for corporate tastes. She ate a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich before skating the 1,000, just as she had munched PB&Js before striking gold in Calgary, in Albertville and in Lillehammer four days earlier in the 500. While everyone else at the Games was tapping out messages to one another on the Olympics-wide E-mail system, Blair used a walkie-talkie to talk with other U.S. athletes and officials. (Her handle: Three-Peat.) Blair's agent may be a completely trustworthy fellow, and he may even book a seat for her on the endorsement gravy train. But if there is an upset at these Games, it is that Bonnie Blair should keep the company of someone named L. Parkes Brittain III.
Blair and Naber were engaging in more of the idle, on-the-set badinage that never makes air when Bonnie blurted something out. "Hey," she told her interviewer, a former U.S. swimmer who owns four gold medals himself, "did you know I was an answer on Jeopardy!?"
"The more important thing is, How much was the clue worth?" Naber replied.
Blair couldn't give a skate's edge what the clue was worth. She would rather have 38 diamonds than 39. Even as the record book says she stands alone, she's still one of the gang.
It's not so very hard to get a level on Bonnie Blair, speed skater.
The laugh was on those who tried to draw Blair out.