WINTER OLYMPICS : In Flash of a Skate, Blair Wins the Gold, Sets Record in 500

Times Staff Writer

What can a person do in two/100ths of a second? Bonnie Blair won a race, set a world record and won a gold medal in less-than-a-moment frozen in time.

Blair won the 500-meter Olympic speed skating event Monday night by a margin so small, a time so fast and in a manner so dramatic, that even her East German opponents had trouble believing what they saw.

While Blair sat on a bench after her greatest victory, brushing away tears of joy and relief, East German skater Andrea Ehrig gave her a hug and said something to her: “It wasn’t a race, it was a dream.”

The youngest of six children of a family in Champaign, Ill., Blair won the first speed skating gold medal by an American woman since Sheila Young in 1976. Blair’s gold medal is the second for the U. S., matching figure skater Brian Boitano.


Blair crossed the finish line in 39.10, defeating Christa Rothenburger of East Germany by two/100ths of a second. Rothenburger, who raced two pairs before Blair, had already broken her own world record with a time of 39.12.

At least Blair had a clear picture of what she needed to do for a medal: Just skate faster than any woman ever had before.

“I knew I had to go for a world record,” she said. “When I saw Christa go 39.12, I wanted to go faster than that. I knew I was capable of that.”

Blair skated the race of her life. She had a fast start and a fast finish, flashing across the finish line to reclaim the world record that Rothenburger took from her here in December in a World Cup race. It was the only time Blair lost a 500-meter race in 1987.

But no one took anything away from Blair this time.

“I just got it on guts,” she said.

Nearly two dozen of Blair’s family members sat in the stands at the Olympic Oval, just behind a banner with a message for her.

Dear Aunt Bonnie, Go fast. Love, Brittany. Brittany is her niece, the daughter of her brother, Rob. Brittany must have been proud of her 23-year-old aunt. Blair felt something, too, the instant she crossed the finish line.

“It was the greatest moment in my life,” she said. “Hearing the national anthem was the second-greatest moment in my life.”

Before Blair’s race, the clock seemed to have stopped for great American moments in speed skating, where tragedy seemed to be waiting around each turn on the ice.

What could Dan Jansen have been thinking as he watched Blair race? He had been favored in the 500-meter race, just as Blair was, but Jansen fell.

Jansen came from a family of nine. Blair has five brothers and sisters. Jansen lost a sister to leukemia the same day he fell in the 500 meters. Rob Blair has a brain tumor that was discovered in December. It seems to be in remission and he was in the stands watching his sister’s triumph on Monday. “I thought about my brother after the race,” she said.

There was much to think about afterwards. Unlike Jansen, everything was just like it was supposed to be.

Blair did everything she was supposed to do. Clutching a bouquet of roses in her arms, cried on the awards stand. Through her tears, she sang every word of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Last March, in Heerenveen, Holland, there had been more music, right after Blair set a world record in a 500-meter race. Sixteen-thousand Dutch sang ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.”

She also skates pretty well over frozen water. Once Blair heard her 100-meter split time shouted at her, she knew she had a chance, which is all she really wanted anyway.

“I got a little extra oomph ,” Blair said.

“You have to tell yourself it’s just another race, even though you know it isn’t. I knew I would be satisfied if I had done my best.”

Rothenburger said she was not altogether sure that her world record would last because Blair as well as East Germany teammate Karin Kania still had to skate.

Rothenburger offered a quick synopsis of her race. “I skated first, I set a record, Bonnie came after me, she took the challenge,” Rothenburger said.

Kania finished third and took the bronze medal. She said she was pleased with her race. So was Rothenburger, who seemed philosophical.

“It’s a little difficult, but that’s sport,” she said. “In the end, the best skater wins, and today that was Bonnie.”

When Blair met with reporters after he race, tears flowed down her cheeks as she talked about beating Rothenburger.

“I just had a better day,” she said.

The way she skates, though, there was only one problem. It was over too soon.