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Blair, Bonnie (1964—)

Blair, Bonnie (1964—)

American speedskater and first American woman in any sport to win gold medals in consecutive Winter Olympics. Born Bonnie Blair in Cornwall, New York, on March 18, 1964; youngest of six children of Charles (a civil engineer) and Eleanor Blair (a real-estate agent); first coached by Cathy Priestner Faminow; married Dave Cruikshank (a speedskater), on June 23, 1996.

First American woman in any sport to win gold medals in consecutive Winter Olympics; first American speedskater to win gold medals in more than one Olympics; most decorated American Winter Olympian of all time, winning five gold medals and one bronze in three Olympics. Won the Olympic gold medal in the 500 meters and the bronze in 1,000 meters at Calgary (1988); won Olympic gold medals in the 100, 500, and 1,000 meters at Albertville (1992); won gold medals in the 500 and 1,000 at Lillehammer (1994).

Seven years after the birth of her last child, Eleanor Blair was surprised to find herself pregnant again at age 46. On March 18, 1964, Charlie Blair dropped his near-term wife off at a hospital, then continued on with three of his children who were competing in a skating meet

that he was officiating; news of "another skater in the family" was announced over the loud speaker. That day, Bonnie Blair became the sixth and youngest child in a family of competitive skaters. Four of her siblings would hold speedskating titles.

When Bonnie was still an infant, Charlie, who called the new baby "missy" because the pregnancy was a mistake, took a new job and moved the family to Champaign, Illinois, then considered a mecca for speedskating. On her first trip to the rink, at the age of three, Bonnie teetered around the ice in the smallest pair of figure skates her mother could find, inside of which she was still wearing baby shoes. A year later, she entered her first competition. By age six, she was winning against girls three and four years older; by age seven, she competed in the Illinois State championships. By the end of her career, Bonnie Blair was considered the best female speedskater ever produced by the United States. Utilizing technique and mental strength to compensate for her small size (5'5" and 125 pounds), she was hailed as the best technician in the world over the sprint distance (500 and 1,000 meters)—man or woman.

Bonnie Blair's training began in earnest in 1979, when Cathy Priestner Faminow, a Canadian silver medalist in the 1976 Olympics, moved to Champaign to coach speedskating. Faminow was the first to work with Blair on her technique, and she cleared the way for the young skater to use the University of Illinois rink for early morning practices. Late in 1979, Blair competed in her first Olympic-style race. Though her time qualified her for the U.S. Olympic trials, she missed making the 1980 speedskating team by a narrow margin. During 1980 and 1981, Blair trained while attending Champaign's Centennial High School, where she also participated in track and gymnastics. Recounting these early years, she credits a happy and supportive home life for her positive attitude. "There were very few times that I was angry or mad," she told a reporter, "and it's this outlook that I brought with me to sports…. If I put in the physical work and my competitor does the same kind of training, but doesn't have the strong positive mental outlook that I do, then she's going to be beaten."

Up to this point, Blair was competing for the most part in pack skating, in which several skaters race each other on 110-meter ovals. To increase her chances for the 1984 Olympics, Faminow urged Blair to travel to Europe, where she could practice on an Olympic-size rink and compete in the Olympic style: against the clock with just two skaters on the track at once. Though Blair was eager to go, she lacked financial backing. Unable to obtain funds from the U.S. Speed Skating Federation for training abroad or from her parents who had already retired, Blair set about raising the money herself. With the help of Champaign's police department, who held a series of bake sales and raffles on her behalf, and a private donation by a friend of her brother's, she was on her way. She finished high school by correspondence course while competing in Europe.

Qualifying for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Blair finished 8th in the 500 meters at the Winter Games in Sarajevo. She admits to being in "total awe" of the East German skaters, Karin Kania-Enke, Christa Rothenburger-Luding, Andrea Mitscherlich Schöne , and Gabi Schönbrunn Zange , who dominated the event that year. Now working with speedskating coach Mike Crowe, who had a training facility in Butte, Montana, Blair improved her times and refined her technique. During the mid- and late 1980s, she lived in Butte with her boyfriend Dick Silk, also a speedskater, and his parents. With Silk's encouragement, Blair concentrated on stabilizing her sometimes haphazard training schedule, which expanded to include a grueling cross-training regimen of skating, weight-training, running, roller skating, and bicycling. In 1986, she gave up pack skating after winning the world championship in short-track skating, which features an 111-meter track and requires specially constructed skates. Crediting pack skating for teaching her how to get off with a quick lead and avoid collisions, Blair now turned her full attention to Olympic-style skating.

I don't think winning means anything in particular. It's the satisfaction you get from knowing you did your best.

—Bonnie Blair

During the 500 meters in the 1986 World Sprint championships, a chance to break the East German lock on international speedskating came within sight when Blair tied for second place with East German Christa Rothenburger-Luding, the 1984 gold medalist in the event. With success in reach, Blair doubled her training efforts. During the 1986–87 season, she broke the world record by skating 500 meters in 39.43 seconds. A week later, she turned in an unofficial time of 39.28. Though her one 500-meter loss to East Germany's Karin Kania-Enke cost her the World Sprint championship, the World Cup championship was hers.

Blair entered the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, under terrific pressure. At a World Cup event there one year before, she had lost the 500 meters to Rothenburger-Luding, who had also set a new world record with a time of 39.39. Blair was nervous on race day. Fearing she might upset an already jittery stomach, she ate only a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch. The heat was turned up when Rothenburger-Luding skated two pairs before Blair and clocked in at 39.12 seconds, breaking her own record. With uproarious lung support from friends and relatives in the stands, Bonnie not only won the 500 meters, but beat Rothenburger-Luding by two-hundredths of a second, the length of a skating blade, setting a new world record of 39.10. She also turned in one of her best starts ever, flashing over the first 100 meters in 10.55. "My first turn wasn't as good as I would have liked, but the rest of the race was perfect," Blair said later. By winning the gold medal along with a bronze in the 1,000 meters, she was America's only double-medal winner in the Calgary Games and was nominated by her teammates to carry the American flag in the closing ceremonies. Her conviviality and unabashed tears as she stood on the victory podium endeared her to an American public. She returned home to such a flurry of endorsement offers that she had to hire an agent to manage this new aspect of her career. Finances would no longer be a problem.

Following a move back to Butte, where she enrolled at Montana Technical University, Blair took a brief rest from skating. In 1989, attempting a crossover into another sport, she took up

bicycle racing. After qualifying for the U.S. cycling team, she gave it up, returning to full-time speedskating training in the summer of 1991. Blair struggled throughout that year, placing only 5th overall in the world championships. When asked, she responded that she just didn't feel comfortable on her skates.

With a new coach, Peter Mueller, she prepared for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, and her old nemesis Christa Rothenburger-Luding. A new threat, Ye Qiaobo of China, was also in the field. With the usual contingency of family and friends in the bleachers, now known as The Blair Bunch, Blair took the 100 meters and overcame poor track conditions to knock off the 500 meters with a time of 40.33 seconds. She dedicated her 500-meter medal to her father, who had died in 1989. Blair also took the 1,000 meters, squeaking out twohundredths of a second ahead of Ye, to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in a Winter Olympics. (In 1992, Russia's Lyubov Egorova [1967—] won three golds and two silvers in cross-country events, becoming the most successful woman athlete in a single winter game.) At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Blair again dominated her sport, becoming the first American to win the same event in three consecutive Winter Games. She took two more gold medals, in the 500 and 1,000.

Aside from her remarkable achievements, Blair seems to have a great zest for life. Self-described as always happy, she is incredibly well-liked, and her well-scrubbed looks and neon smile make her a natural in front of a camera. Her image has graced items from cereal boxes to a postage stamp in the small Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Away from the fierce competition of her sport and the glare of public attention, Blair relaxes with the romance novels of Danielle Steele , follows the soap operas, and plays golf.

Ye Qiaobo

Chinese speedskater. Won an Olympic silver medal in the 500 and 1,000 meter (1991).

Ye Qiaobo was expected to challenge Bonnie Blair in Calgary's 1988 Olympic games, but she was packed up and sent home when she tested positive for steroids. Banned from international competition for the next 15 months, Ye was reviled in the Chinese press: she had brought disgrace, they said, to her family and to her homeland. Though Ye maintained she was only following the orders of the team doctor, no one listened. When team officials finally admitted that the doctor—not the speedskater—was responsible, Ye prepared once more for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville while watching video tapes of Blair's technique.

Ye was off to a slow start in the 500 meter in Albertville but picked up some time on the backstretch. Though she claimed that Russia's Elena Tiouchniakova obstructed her on a crossover, the judges ruled that it had not affected the outcome. Even so, Ye had a strong finish, coming in at 40.51. Ten minutes later, Bonnie Blair took to the ice and finished .18 in front of Ye. Blair took the gold, but Ye had won China's first winter medal in the Olympic games. In the 1,000 meters, Ye came in .02 seconds behind Blair for her second silver.

In addition to her Olympic victories in 1994, Blair won the overall gold medal in the World Sprint Championships and was named the Associated Press 1994 Female Athlete of the Year. As her remarkable skating career came to a close, she received the 1994 Babe Zaharias Female Amateur Athlete Award in November. That December, Bonnie Blair was named Sports Illustrated's Sportswoman of the Year. She even graced millions of breakfast tables, beaming from the front of Wheaties boxes.

sources:

Brand, David. "Bonnie the Blur," in Time. March 7, 1988, p. 69.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson. 1962.

Friedman, Jack. "A Racer's Edge: Speed in the Family," in People Weekly. February 15, 1988, pp. 34–35

The [New London] Day, January 11, 1995, Section C, pp. 1 and 5.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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