Skip to main content
Select Source:

Blair, Bonnie

Bonnie Blair

1964-

American speed skater

American speed skater Bonnie Blair won six medals competing in three Winter Olympics Games, the second most medals won by a woman in the Winter Olympic Games (the first was Lydia Skoblikova ). Of the six, five were gold, making Blair the only American woman to ever win five gold medals in the games. Blair was also the first American speed skater to win in more than one Olympic Games (1988, 1992, and 1994). As a speed skater, Blair had exemplary technique which contributed to her success.

Blair was born on March 18, 1964, in Cornwall, New York, the youngest of six children. She was the daughter of Charlie and Eleanor Blair, who raised their large Catholic family in Champaign, Illinois. All of Blair's two sisters and three brothers speed skated competitively because of their father. In fact, Charlie Blair had his children at a competition while his youngest child was being born. Though four of Blair's other siblings went on to win national championships, it was Blair who did the best as a competitive speed skater. Professionally, Charlie Blair was an engineer while Eleanor Blair worked in real estate.

Began Skating

Blair first donned skates at the age of two, and was competing as a speed skater by the age of four. She won a number of races as a child, including the Illinois state championship when she was seven. While Blair focused on speed skating, she also competed in other sports and activities. When she was attending Centennial High School, she competed in track and field events, including 100 meter to 800 meter races, long jump, and triple jump. She also was a cheerleader and on student council.

By the time Blair was fifteen, she decided to make speed skating her sole sport, training in a vigilant and dedicated fashion. At fifteen, Blair was named to the U.S. speed skating team. She began training with Cathy Priestner, who had won a silver medal in speed skating for Canada in the 1976 games, at the University of Illinois rink.

Priestner profoundly affected Blair's direction as a speed skater. Before Priestner, Blair only competed in short-track, pack-style racing. That is, races that were conducted with a number of skaters competing against each other in a pack. Olympic speed skating competitions were conducted differently. In Olympic style, skaters skated in pairs against the clock. Priestner had Blair train in the Olympic style on both short and long-track races. The Olympic style favored Blair's small stature and emphasis on technique. From early in her career, Blair's father was convinced that she would win Olympic Gold.

Competed at Olympic Trials

When Blair was sixteen, she competed at her first Olympic trials for the 1980 Winter Olympics. Though she did well at the meet, she did not make the team. Blair wanted to continue to train for the 1984 Olympics and beyond, but had problems getting funding for her training. She received help from the local Champaign community. Fundraising was spearheaded by the Champaign police force in 1982, and Blair received support from such disparate sources as one of her brother's college fraternity brothers, professional basketball player Jack Silma who played with the Milwaukee Bucks. This allowed Blair to train seriously, including one stint with the U.S. men's speed skating team in Butte, Montana. Blair remained a popular figure in Champaign for many years, and was even given the key to the city. She graduated from Centennial High School, and later took some courses at Parkland Junior College in Champaign.

Blair had more success in 1984, making the U.S. women's speed skating team for the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. She did not medal, but finished eighth in the 500-meter race. When Blair returned to the United States, she increased the intensity of her training, including weight training, running, biking, and rollerblading in addition to skating. Her hard work paid off when in 1985, she won the U.S. sprint championship. She would win this championship every year through 1994. In 1986, Blair set her first world's record in the 500 meters. Blair would also hold a number of world's and American records over the course of her speed skating career.

Blair's success came despite the fact that she was smaller and lighter than an average female speed skater. She was only 5'5" and 125-130 lbs. Blair was forced to rely on superior technique and a ferocious will to win because of her physical limitations. Blair knew how to win and took advantage of it. She used a low crouch and had a solid stroke. Speed skating coach Bob Fenn told Angus Phillips of Washington Post in 1992, "From a technical standpoint, she's the most efficient skater in the whole world. And as far as skating goes, she's got a lot of class."

Won Olympic Gold

Blair began to succeed on the international speed skating stage. In 1987, she won the World Cup in both the 500 and 1000 meter races. By the time of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, Blair was regarded as one of the hopes for the future of American speed skating. She lived up to the hype by winning a gold medal in the 500 meters and a bronze in the 1000 meters. During her gold medal-winning race, she also set a world's record with a time of 39.1 seconds. (She finished fourth in the 1500 meter race.) Blair was the only American to win two medals at these games, and was given the honor of carrying the American flag at the closing ceremonies.

During the Olympics, Blair was given the nickname "Bonnie the Blur." After the games ended, she received a number of commercial endorsements that funded her training, including Disney World and other commercials, though these opportunities were not as numerous or long-lived as originally hoped. Though Blair briefly considered not competing in the 1992 games, she told Douglas S. Looney of Sports Illustrated, "Skating has always been a pleasure and a joy. 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."

Lost Focus as a Skater

After the Olympics, Blair continued her education, studying physical education at Montana Tech University. In 1989, she won the World Sprint Championships, though she did not train as hard as she had for the Olympics. Blair lost focus for a while after the death of her father on December 25, 1989. She stopped training as a skater for a brief period, spending four months training as a cyclist. Blair finished fourth in a national sprint competition for cyclists.

Chronology

1964 Born March 18 in Cornwall, New York
1966 Begins skating
1979 Begins competing as member of national speed skating team
1980 Competes at the Olympic trials, but does not make team
1984 Competes in the Winter Olympic Games
1988 Wins Olympic gold and bronze at Winter Olympic Games
1992 Wins two Olympic golds at Winter Olympic Games
1995 Retires from competitive speed skating; becomes motivational speaker
1996 Marries speed skater Dave Cruikshank on June 23

Related Biography: Coach Cathy Priestner

One of Blair's most influential coaches was Cathy Priestner (later known as Cathy Priestner-Allinger when she married Todd Allinger in 1986). Priestner had been a speed skater since her teen years, winning a national championship within a year of taking up the sport. Priestner had been an Olympic medalist herself, winning silver when she represented Canada at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976. She was the first Canadian woman to win a medal in speed skating. She also represented Canada in speed skating in the 1972 games in Sapporo, Japan. After a decade in the broadcast booth working as a commentator for the Olympics for the CBC and CTV, Priestner later became associated with the Olympics as a member of the organizing committee for the Calgary games in 1988, Salt Lake City in 2002, and Turin, Italy in 2006. She also managed the oval built for the Calgary games after the Oympics ended for a number of years.

Another problem for Blair was the lack of competition among the American women speed skaters in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The trials were a breeze for her. The only real competition came internationally, but because of her lack of training in 1989-91, she did not have much success in races in 1990-91. For example, Blair finished fifth in the 1991 World Sprint Championships, though she was also suffering from bronchitis at the time.

Won Two More Golds

As the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France, approached, Blair regained her focus on speed skating. She was considered the best American hope for a medal, and did not disappoint. She won the first American gold of the games when she won the 500 meter race. Though the race was not great, in part because the ice surface was too warm, the victory made Blair the first woman to win gold in consecutive Winter Olympic games. Blair also won gold in the 1000 meter race. In both races, she was pushed by Ye Qiaobo of China who earned two silver medals. Blair won the 1000 meter race by only .02 seconds. Ye trained by watching tapes of Blair. Blair's only disappointment was finishing 21st in the 1500 meter race.

After the Albertville games ended, Blair again took the opportunity created by her celebrity. She signed with Advantage International, a sports marketing group, and did a number of commercials endorsements including Jeep, Evian, National Frozen Foods, and Rollerblades. She also began serving on the board for U.S. Speed skating. Training remained her focus, however. Because an indoor training oval, Pettit National Ice Center, opened in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Blair moved there from Champaign.

Blair continued to have success on the international level, though she also challenged herself to find ways to win. In 1993 and 1994, she won gold medals at the World Championships in 500 meters. Still Blair changed her training a bit. She hired a different coach, Nick Thometz, who emphasized something different for Blair: explosive drills over strength and distance training. Blair also continued to improve her already great technique. Blair told Brian Cazeneuve of The Sporting News, "I'm the one who puts pressure on myself. I just want to go fast. When the gun goes off, I don't worry about the person next to me. This is an individual sport."

Competed in Last Olympics

When the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway, came around, Blair was again favored to win. She continued to compete in part because there were only two years between these Olympic Games. (The International Olympic Committee wanted Summer and Winter Olympic Games to alternate every two years.) Though Blair trained for the Olympics like they were any other meet, she dominated the trials in the 500, 1000, and 1500 meter races.

At the Olympic Games, Blair had the support of her family, the so-called "Blair Bunch" which consisted of immediate and extended family members who attended a number of her more important races en masse. They saw Blair win two more golds. She won the 500 meters with a time of 39.1 seconds and the 1000 meters with a time of 1:18.74. For her success, Blair was named the Babe Zaharis Female Amateur Athlete of the Year and sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated for 1994. The victories led to more endorsements, and even more important to Blair, the popularity of speed skating.

Blair's last year as a competitive speed skater was 1995. Though she knew she was retiring, she left on top. In early 1995, she set another world's record in the 500 meters skating on the Olympic oval in Calgary where she won her first medal. Blair broke the 39-second mark by skating it in 38.13 seconds. She also set a record in the 1000 meters with a time of 1:19.3. Blair won the World Sprint Championships, then retired on March 18, 1995, after the competition held on her home ice in Milwaukee. Blair said she quit because there was nothing left for her to prove. As Jere Longman wrote in the New York Times, "Blair has no mountains to climb. Many athletes wait too long, until their skills have begun to melt and slide like snow from a roof. But Blair is going out on top." At her peak, she considered the fastest woman in the world in speed skating. Blair told Shannon Brownlee of Sports Illustrated, "Skating is a 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."

CONTACT INFORMATION

Address: c/o 306 White Pine Rd., Delafield, WI 53018-1124.

Awards and Accomplishments

c. 1971 Won Illinois state championship in speed skating for age group
1985-94 U.S. sprint champion
1986 Set world's record in 500 meters
1987 Won World Cup in 500 meters and 1000 meters
1988 Won gold medal in Olympics speed skating in 500 metersset world's recordand won bronze in 1000 meters
1989 Won the World Sprint Champions
1992 Won gold medals in 500 meter and 1000 meter at Olympics in speed skating
1993 Won gold in 500 meters at World Championships
1994 Won gold medals in 500 meters and 1000 meters at Winter Olympic Games in speed skating; won gold in 500 meters and 1000 at World Sprint Championships and World Cup; named Babe Zaharis Female Amateur Athlete of the Year; named Sportswoman of the Year by Women's Sports Foundation
1995 Set 500 meters speed skating world record at Calgary; retired in March as speed skater; named Sportswoman of the Year by Women's Sports Foundation; won world sprint championship
1997 Given Sports Humanitarian Award, World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame

Where Is She Now?

After retiring from skating, Blair had two children (son Grant and daughter Blair), worked as a motivational speaker, and wrote a book about her accomplishments, A Winning Edge (1996). She remained connected to speed skating by serving as a coach and conducting clinics. Her husband, Dave Cruikshank, was also a speed skater and she served as his technical consultant. Blair continued to serve on the board for U.S. Speed skating and also worked for the Olympic Committee. She did some television commentary for speed skating. In addition, Blair was active in charity work and continued to do some commercial endorsements for companies like General Mills products at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY BLAIR:

(With Greg Brown) A Winning Edge, Taylor, 1996.

FURTHER INFORMATION

books

Christensen, Karen, et al., eds. International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Parry, Melanie, ed. Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Chambers, 1997.

Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Women and Sports. ABC-CLIO, 1996.

Periodicals

Brand, David. "Bonnie the blue." Time (March 7, 1988): 69.

Brownlee, Shannon. "Yanks on the move." Sports Illustrated (January 27, 1988): 236.

Cazeneuve, Brian. "Skating first." Sporting News (February 14, 1994): S15.

Janofsky, Michael. "Olympic Profile: Bonnie Blair; A Life of Skating Leads to Calgary." New York Times (February 9, 1987): 166.

Janofsky, Michael. "Repeat for Blair." New York Times (February 11, 1992): B11.

Jeansonne, John. "Blair Has a FlairFor Gold." Newsday (February 6, 1994): 16.

Jenkins, Sally. "A Bonnie blare." Sports Illustrated (February 17, 1992): 38.

Jenkins, Sally. "Glory and gloom." Sports Illustrated (February 24, 1992): 18.

Longman, Jere. "Retiring at Top Speed." New York Times (February 19, 1995): section 8, p. 1.

Looney, Douglas S. "Bring back Bonnie." Sports Illustrated (March 6, 1989): 32.

Looney, Douglas S. "Sprinting to Calgary." Sports Illustrated (December 6, 1987): section 2, p. 10.

Matson, Barbara. "Blair has not Slowed Down: Family is her Life, Not Speed skating." Boston Globe (January 9, 2002): F7.

Noden, Merrell. "Catching up with Bonnie Blair and Johann Olav Koss." Sports Illustrated (January 20, 1997): 4.

Noden, Merrell. "One-woman ice show." Sports Illustrated (January 15, 1990): 92.

Parrish, Paula. "History (Never) Lessens: Bonnie Blair was textbook good, and her legacy still is quoted chapter and verse." Denver Rocky Mountain News (February 15, 2002): 23S.

Phillips, Angus. "Bonnie Blair is a 5-4 Colossus on Skates." Washington Post (January 2, 1992): D3.

Phillips, Angus. "Introspective Blair Rebuffs Outside World in Pursuit of Gold." Washington Post (February 11, 1994): H5.

Reilly, Rick. "To mettle the medal." Sports Illustrated (March 7, 1988): 50.

Rushin, Steve. "Child of innocence." Sports Illustrated (December 19, 1994): 72.

Rushin, Steve. "The last lap." Sports Illustrated (February 27, 1995): 52.

Rushin, Steve. "Time after time." Sports Illustrated (February 7, 1994): 90.

Williams, Lena. "Blair Enjoys Being Olympic Spectator." New York Times (January 16, 2002): D7.

Witteman, Paul A. "Blades of gold." Time (February 24, 1992): 54.

Wolff, Alexander. "Bonnie's bounty." Sports Illustrated (March 7, 1994): 42.

Wolff, Alexander. "Whooosh!." Sports Illustrated (February 28, 1994): 18.

Other

Imperial Oil Web Site. http://www.imperialoil.ca/thisis/publications/review/2001q4 (January 5, 2003).

Sketch by A. Petruso

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Blair, Bonnie." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Blair, Bonnie." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/blair-bonnie

"Blair, Bonnie." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/blair-bonnie

Bonnie Blair

Bonnie Blair

Speed skating champion Bonnie Blair (born 1964) is the most highly decorated American Winter Olympic athlete in history with six medals. She holds five gold medals, for the 500-meter and 1,000-meter events, as well as a bronze medal for the 1,000-meter event. Since her retirement from competition in 1995 at the age of 31, she has turned her stellar Olympic performances into a successful career as a motivational speaker and corporate spokesperson.

Learned to Skate at Two

Bonnie Kathleen Blair was born on March 18, 1964, in the Hudson River town of Cornwall, New York, and grew up in Champaign, Illinois. She was the youngest of six children, all of whom learned to skate at an early age. Blair herself was introduced to the sport when she was just two years old. She was so small at the time that her parents could not find skates that fit her, so she had to wear shoes under her skates. By the time she was four years old, Blair was racing, and she loved it, competing against her older brothers and sisters and others in elementary and junior high school. Blair later ran on her high school track team, where, she later claimed, she did not stand out among her peers. She ran wherever her coach decided he was missing a body—on the long jump, high jump, short distances, and relays. She also tried her hand at gymnastics for a while.

Blair's introduction to competitive skating was as a pack racer on short tracks where she competed against many people in one race. She was 16 years old when she began Olympic-style racing, which pits only two racers against each other in a competition based on time. In her teens, Blair began to apply herself to the sport of speed skating as she never had before, largely at the encouragement of her friend Dave Silk, who competed on the men's U.S. team. "He's the hardest worker on the team," Blair later told Angus Phillips in the Washington Post, "and he got me into that, too. In Champaign, I'd miss a workout or two. But Dave gave me real direction."

Competed Internationally at 18

In 1982, when Blair was 18 years old, her trainers wanted to take her to Europe to compete outside of the United States for the first time. She agreed to go, but she lacked the backing to finance the trip. So, the police department in Champaign stepped in to raise money for her trip, holding a series of raffles and bake sales. Also, Jack Sikma, a professional basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks, donated $1,500 for her trip.

Blair's European trip had the desired effect, sharpening her skills for more competition. The year following her return from Europe, she won the 1983 U.S. indoor speed skating championship, a title she won again in 1984. Also in 1984, Blair competed at the Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. She did not win any medals, but it proved a valuable experience for her. In 1985, Blair won the North American indoor speed skating championship, and in 1986, she again won the U.S. indoor title. Now a world-class speed skater, Blair went on to set a world speed skating record in 1987, racing 500 meters in 39.43 seconds.

Won First Olympic Gold Medal

Blair won her first gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary, Canada. Her win in the 500-meter event broke the world record, which had been set only minutes before by the East German skater Christa Rothenburger. With a new world record of 39.1 seconds, Blair became the first American woman since 1976 to win a gold medal in speed skating. Also at the 1988 Olympics, Blair won the bronze medal for the 1,000-meter event.

At the Olympics, Blair was cheered on by her large extended family, including her parents, her brother Chuck, her sister Mary, along with Mary's husband and children, her sister Susie, her brother Rob and his wife and child, her sister Angela, and her uncle Lennie, along with the friends of all of her family members.

Blair would in later years recall that first Olympic gold medal victory as the high point of her career. "That's not to say I didn't have other great memories," she told Paula Parrish in the Rocky Mountain News, "but I think that had the biggest impact." And, as she told Barbara Matson in the Boston Globe, "Crossing that [finish] line was the happiest moment of my life."

Continued Olympic Winning Streak

No longer a relative unknown, Blair was considered a favorite when she headed to the 1992 Winter Olympics held in Albertville, France. She surpassed her 1988 Olympic performance, taking home the gold medal not only in the 500-meter event, but in the 1,000-meter race as well. To win the 500-meter event, Blair beat Chinese skater Ye Qiaobo by 18 hundredths of a second. In winning the 1,000-meter event, Blair again beat Ye, this time by a mere two hundredths of a second. It was the first time a woman had won two Olympic gold medals for the 500-meter event in two successive Winter Olympics. Her stellar performance at the 1992 Olympics also earned Blair the Sullivan Award as the Best Amateur Athlete in the United States. Blair dedicated her successes in Albertville to the memory of her father, who had died on Christmas Day 1989.

With her gold medals and winning personality to match, Blair captured the imagination of the American public, becoming a media darling and a favorite among fans. She became almost as well known for her entourage of family and friends—a group deemed the Blair Bunch that had grown to more than 60 people by 1994—who went with her to each of her Olympic competitions to cheer her on from the stands.

Now unquestionably a star, in 1994 Blair went on to her third Winter Olympics, which were held in Lille-hammer, Norway. There she won two more gold medals, for both the 500-meter and the 1,000-meter races. It was another first for a female athlete—no other woman had ever won five Olympic gold medals for individual events. Her total of six Olympic medals (five gold and a bronze) also made her the most successful American Winter Olympian in history. To celebrate, she climbed into the stands, still wearing her skates, to hug her family and friends.

This victory was bittersweet for Blair, since she knew it was to be the last Olympics in which she would compete. She was grateful for all of her successes, however, and for all the wonderful memories they gave her. Most of all, she told Karen Rosen in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1998, "I'm really grateful for VCRs so I can go back and relive it."

Retired in 1995

Blair competed as a speed skater one more season following her last Olympic win. During this last season, she shattered her world record time for the 500-meter sprint— twice. Her final, record-breaking time for the 500-meter sprint was 38.99 seconds. After this, at the age of 31, she felt she was ready to retire from competitive skating. "I just thought it was the right time," she said of her retirement to Heather McCabe in the Houston Chronicle. "It was a nice ending."

Following her retirement from competitive skating, Blair remained extremely active, both in her sport and outside of it. She went to work coaching the U.S. women's speed skating team, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She and her husband, fellow speed skater Dave Cruikshank, made their home in Milwaukee, and Blair kept up a heavy travel schedule, flying to different cities around the country to meet various corporate endorsement obligations. Blair has also become an accomplished motivational speaker, addressing audiences on such topics as "Achieving Your Personal Best." She has also made television commercials for such major corporations as McDonald's and AT&T. She counts herself lucky in being able to maintain such an active retirement, noting that not all Olympic gold medalists have been as fortunate.

After the turn of the twenty-first century, Blair still found herself involved in speed skating, even though she no longer competed. Instead, she skated vicariously through her husband, who competed in international events. Cruikshank had skated in four Olympics by 1998, and he narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. team for the 2002 Olympics. Blair later credited her husband's continuing involvement in the sport with helping her to make the transition from competition to civilian life.

Stayed in the Public Eye

At the beginning of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Blair again took the spotlight when she became the last torchbearer on the Wisconsin segment of the Olympic torch run in January. She skated twice around the Pettit National Ice Center for a cheering crowd of ten thousand fans before lighting the Olympic caldron set up at the Center. Blair was touched by the adulations of the crowd, saying that she had never heard any group of spectators cheer so hard for her.

In addition to her ongoing endorsement commitments, Blair serves as a sports commentator on the ABC television network and sits on the board of directors of the U.S. speed skating team. Blair has also been involved in the American Brain Tumor Association's efforts to combat this little-understood disease; in 1987, Blair's brother Rob was diagnosed with brain cancer that was deemed terminal. Ten years later, however, doctors were able to remove about half of the tumor, giving Blair and her family hope for a cure.

Encased in a glass tabletop in her house, Blair's gold medals have become part of her daily landscape. "The kids eat cereal on top of it," she told Parrish, "but it's got a heavy top, so nothing gets underneath." Blair lives in Delafield, Wisconsin, with her husband and their son Grant and daughter Blair.

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 9, 1998.

Boston Globe, January 9, 2002.

Houston Chronicle, August 13, 1996.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 6, 2002; February 18, 2002.

Rocky Mountain News, February 15, 2002.

Sports Illustrated for Women, February 2002.

Toronto Star, January 11, 1995; March 19, 1995.

USA Today, October 17, 1995.

Washington Post, February 24, 1988.

Online

"Bonnie Blair," HickokSports.com, http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/blairbon.shtml (March 10, 2003).

"Bonnie Blair," Infoplease.com, http://www.infoplease.com/ipsa/A0109013.html (March 10, 2003). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bonnie Blair." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bonnie Blair." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bonnie-blair

"Bonnie Blair." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bonnie-blair