Winter Olympics: Calgary : BLAIR WITH HER : U.S.'s Leading Skater Hopes She's Worth Her Weight in Gold

Times Staff Writer

Bonnie Blair is 5-feet 5-inches tall and weighs 125 pounds but she is carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders. Like . . .

America's Golden Girl? the media ask. Can she stop the East Germans by herself, sort of an Alamo on ice?

Is she really the only chance the U.S. has to win a gold medal at the Calgary Olympics?

Is she going to slit her wrists with skate blades if this stuff gets any worse?

"I'm pretty relaxed, really," Blair said. "I've heard everything about the gold medal pressure and what's expected of me, but you know what? If it happens, sure, it would be nice. After all, I don't think I'm a household name exactly. Maybe the only way is for me to win a gold medal."

So, there you have it. Soon, the name Bonnie Blair could be heard in your very household. It will be coming from the television tuned to speed skating because there is no doubt that if there is one sport in which the U.S. has a chance to win a gold medal, it is in speed skating.

And Blair may be just the woman to do it.

What's happening to Blair and the American speed skaters is all Eric Heiden's fault. In 1980, Heiden swept the men's events, winning five gold medals. He had done more for Spandex than Bon Jovi. Heiden had also raised America's expectations of its speed skaters to a new, higher and more pressurized level.

The only problem with what Heiden did is that in 1984 at Sarajevo, U.S. speed skaters didn't win a gold medal. In fact, they didn't win any medals. It was a long, hard fall to reality.

"One thing they have to overcome is the expectations that a lot of people have for them after what happened in 1980," Heiden said. "The fact that they didn't do well in 1984 probably doesn't do much for their confidence."

Now a second-year medical student at Stanford, Heiden would like to be a sports physiologist. If he could crawl inside the heads of the top U.S. skaters, what would he see?

Going into the World Cup competition at Calgary in early December, Blair was the fastest women's sprinter in the world at 500 meters.

Three days later, she wasn't.

Christa Rothenberger of East Germany took Blair's 500-meter record away from her with a time of 39.39 seconds. That was four-hundredths of a second quicker than the record set by Blair, who had broken the mark of Karin Enke Kania, another East German.

The World Cup races were held at the Olympic Oval, an indoor facility well suited to world-record times, so Blair thinks she has a good chance to get her record back. And she knows what she may have to skate to do it.

"Definitely the world record can be broken," said Blair. "The track is definitely that fast."

And Blair definitely is fast enough to do it.

"If things go right, I think breaking 39 is possible."

The U.S. has two chances for medals in the men's events. No, not slim and none. Nick Thometz and Dan Jansen may not be as dominating as Heiden and certainly they have not been as consistent, but each has a pretty good shot at some medal.

Thometz is the world record-holder in the 500 meters at 36.55 seconds and that is probably the best distance for the U.S. men. Jansen will skate in the 500 and the 1,000 meters, as will Thometz, who may also compete in the 1,500 meters if he is completely healthy.

Ever since they became part of the U.S. team, Thometz and Jansen have been leap-frogging one another. Jansen, who finished fourth, just ahead of Thometz, in the 500 at Sarajevo, began as one of the top sprinters in the world in 1985-86, only to get sandbagged by mononucleosis in 1986-87.

Thometz moved ahead of him. He stayed there until the Olympic trials in mid-December when Thometz was hospitalized for a low platelet count in his blood.

Where do they stand now? If they're both healthy and skate to their potential, Thometz, 24, of Minneapolis, and Jansen, 22, of suburban Milwaukee, figure to be as good as anyone in the 500 and 1,000.

"They're fighters," said U.S. Coach Mike Crowe. "They're race-day people."

They may need to be, Crowe said.

"This could be the last roundup," he said. "There won't be another chance for them."

The American speed skaters have a style different from their European counterparts. Their competitors concentrate on strength and power, but Crowe coaches technique. That is why the Americans' chances may be improved in the shorter races, where technique is vital and one slight bobble in a turn could cost someone a medal.

Blair, 23, from Champaign, Ill., is a positive thinker as well as a technically adept skater. But what she will be trying to do at Calgary is going to require a gigantic leap of faith. Blair wants to beat Kania in the 1,500 meters. Of course, she's going to try to beat her in the 500 and 1,000, too, but over the 1,500-meter distance, Kania is generally regarded as close to unbeatable.

"From the races she's had in the past, I think she's pretty much untouchable in the 1,500 meters," Blair said. "But I also think she's much more touchable in the 1,000. The way I look at it, you blast it like a 500 and hold on to it toward the end."

There is going to be plenty of competition for Blair, no matter what distance she races. Kania and Rothenberger are there in the 500. Kania, Rothenberger and two more East Germans, Andrea Ehrig and Angela Stahnke, crowd the field in the 1,000 meters. And in the 1,500, Kania is the only woman in the world with a time faster than 2 minutes, 1:59.3. The personal bests of Ehrig and Blair are more than four seconds slower.

Heiden, however, believes that Blair has as good a chance as anyone to break the East German stranglehold on the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter races.

"I think she is the strongest skater on the U.S. team," he said. "She really feels confident in the 500 meters and the 1,000 meters, and she's even going to try for the 1,500 meters, which surprised me. But I think training for the 1,500 meters will help her in the 1,000 meters a lot. I know the East German women dominate speed skating. Bonnie has her work cut out for her, but I think she can do it.

"I think the U.S. has a good chance at winning gold medals in the 500 and 1,000 meters, both men and women, potentially the 1,500 for women," Heiden said. "I have a feeling Bonnie might be able to do something there. Not because she'll be that much better than the other girls, but the fact that it's a distance that she doesn't hold a lot of expectations about. She might go out there pretty relaxed.

"The men . . . I don't know what's going to happen in the longer distances. It's my opinion that maybe they aren't training hard enough. They do a lot of technique training, but they don't do a lot of strength-type training. Not just weights, but a lot of endurance-type things."

Crowe said he thinks he will let the results stand for themselves. Whether it is responding to questions about training or about winning medals, Crowe doesn't want to promote distractions. There have been enough already, he said.

"Each person is a little different, so we try to view ourselves as a whole, a team," he said. "Hopefully, that kind of attitude sticks. It doesn't seem to have worked out too badly for us. We've had a big change in our attitude. We're not trying to catch up. It's the type of thing where we're saying we like to be the best and we want to maintain it.

"When I started off coaching this team in '85, after what happened in '84, I said, 'Let's get ourselves together. Let's show ourselves we belong.' So I've definitely seen us mature and our confidence grow."

THE OUTLOOK

In the women's events, it's going to be the usual lineup: the East Germans against everybody else. Bonnie Blair of the U.S. has a chance to win the 500 meters and take back her world record from Christa Rothenberger of East Germany, but Karin Kania, also of East Germany is another threat.

The 1,000- and 1,500-meter races have long belonged to Kania, a five-time world sprint champion and a three-time winner of the world's all-around title. Blair is going to compete in both of the events, but she is going to be challenged by Rothenberger in the 1,000 and East German Andrea Ehrig in the 1,500.

The favorites in the women's distance races are Ehrig, teammate Gabi Zange and Dutch skater Yvonne van Gennip.

Nick Thometz's world record in the 500 meters is going to be up for grabs. Akira Kuroiwa of Japan, Ki Tae-Bae of South Korea, Sergei Fokichev of Russia and Canadians Gaetan Boucher and Guy Thibault all have a shot, and so does Thometz's teammate, Dan Jansen.

The 1,000 meters is just as complicated. Boucher, the 1984 gold medalist, is in the field with Thometz, Jansen, Kuroiwa and the strongest Russian skater, Igor Zhelezovsky.

Zhelezovsky, who set a world record in the 1,500 meters in December, is the favorite in that distance over Boucher, 29, the 1984 Olympic champion. Russia's Nikolai Gulialev and Oleg Bojiev are also considered contenders.

The 5,000 and 10,000 favorites are Bozhiev, Leo Visser and Gerard Kemkers of the Netherlands and Norwegian world record-holder Geir Karlstad.

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