Racing to the Finish : Bonnie Blair Is on Farewell Tour, but the Five-Time Gold Medalist Is as Competitive as Ever

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Speedskating technique can be broken down to the deep angle of a knee, the low drop of the body, the length of a stride. Technically, Bonnie Blair is superb, but that doesn't begin to explain her five Olympic gold medals, the most for an American woman.

Her mother attributes her success to a strong work ethic. "When she finds what she wants to do and can see it's something that she really likes, she'll do it well," Eleanor Blair said.

Speedskater Dan Jansen, a longtime friend and 1994 gold medalist, agrees. "She never gets tired of working hard to improve herself," he said. "She's never said, 'I'm at the top now. I'm going to cruise.' "

Yet, Blair's success goes beyond determination to an exquisite sense of timing, knowing how and when to push--and, now, when to quit.

Blair, who will be 31 next month, is blazing toward the end of a remarkable career. Last Sunday at Calgary, Canada, a day after she lost a 500-meter race to Canadian Susan Auch and critics wondered if she had stayed too long, Blair was paired with Auch in the 500 and overtook her after the first 100 meters to set a world record of 38.69 seconds.

That was a race that Blair considered a tuneup for the World Sprint Championships this weekend at the Pettit National Ice Center.

Besides silencing her doubters, she stunned her coach, Nick Thometz. He thought she could trim her previous best time of 38.99, but not by three-tenths of a second. "I'd have to bite my tongue," he said.

She also reassured herself that she can prevail on the rare occasions when she is challenged. "It's great that Susan is skating well, and that's one of the reasons I did so well last weekend," she said.

But it did not change her mind about retiring.

She will skate in World Cup races in Germany, Norway and Calgary, but the sprint championships will be her final races on American ice. The event will also bring out 300 members of the Blair Bunch, the friends, relatives and fans who have rooted for her throughout her career.

"What better place to do it?" said Blair, who lives in Milwaukee.

This, she said, is the right place--she has never lost a race at the Pettit Center in its two-year existence--and the right time.

"When I think back to 1988 and winning a gold and a bronze, there were people saying, 'Why keep going?' I just wasn't ready yet," she said Friday. "After '92, there was the same reaction. Then '94 and coming into this year, people were saying, 'Why do you want to stop?'

"The reason I didn't stop before is I was still totally thrilled about going out and racing. That's not to say that I don't feel that now. I still do. But I always wanted to be at the point where if I walk away, I don't want to come back. I feel I've given a lot. It's like, 'I'm done. That's it. I don't want to turn back.' I'm at that point now, and I'm ready to get on with the rest of my life."

She's not sure what is ahead. She might coach, but she's cautious about committing to it. "I do know just because you've been a good skater doesn't mean you're going to be a good coach," she said.

She is better than good. Her talent helped, but diligence, poise and a level head won those five gold medals (at 500 and 1,000 meters in 1992 and 1994 and at 500 in 1988) and a bronze in the 1,000 in 1988.

"I don't think she's ever come up to me before a workout and said, 'I can't,' " Thometz said. "She's not inhuman. She doesn't go out and feel like a gold medalist every day. She has bad days. But some people will say 'Oh, I don't feel good today,' and write it off. If her day isn't good, she'll try to work through it, and she'll try to make it better."

Said Cathy Priestner-Allinger, a silver medalist in the 500 meters in 1976 who persuaded Blair to leave short-track skating for metric racing: "It's your head that wins it for you. If you get out there and you're on equal ground as far as preparation, it comes down to mental ability. She's interesting in the way she looks at a race. It's her racing against herself.

"When Susan beat her last Saturday, everyone said, 'That's it. Bonnie's on her way down.' But she looked at her race and said she was solid; it was that Susan had a great race. She only evaluates based on herself."

She rates her triumph in the 500 in the '88 Games her most memorable. "Setting the world record, being able to win an Olympic medal and doing something I had never done before, there was definitely a thrill behind it," she said. "When you do something for the very first time, it is very powerful."

That victory became part of her identity.

"For her, and I think for a lot of other women skaters, that was a defining moment because she was the first one to break through the East German barrier," Jansen said. "For Bonnie, the Olympics has been a defining moment. For me too, in a different way. She would have years between Olympics that were bad--bad for her being seconds and thirds--but she turned it on and always had good years in Olympic years."

Jansen enjoys his retirement but wonders how Blair will adjust.

"It may be tougher for Bonnie because I have my wife and my little girl, who I can watch grow up every day," he said. "For Bonnie, it's always been competition. Now she'll have to put that energy into something else."

Her mother isn't worried. She is already planning another Blair Bunch gathering, at the Bonnie Blair Open golf tournament in Texas next summer. Blair will give the proceeds to brain-tumor research. One of her brothers, Rob, has an inoperable brain tumor.

"I just haven't been concerned because her decisions have been good," Eleanor said. "I'm about the luckiest mother in the world. That's not to say I'm not going to cry a little bit, but I'm anxious to see what else is out there for her. You can't spend your whole life doing what you did when you were a little girl. You have to look at it with a little sense."

But Bonnie does not want too much sentiment this weekend.

"I don't really want to look at this event as any different. I don't want to think, 'Gosh, this is going to be my last race in the U.S.,' " she said. "Even when I skate my last race, I probably won't feel it. When I'm going to start feeling a little emotional or let down is when I see other athletes get back on the ice. When I hear the gun for a race. Until then, I'm going to enjoy every last minute I have."

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