Blair Wins 1,000, Sets Gold Record for U.S. Women
By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 1994; Page D1
America's greatest woman speed skater confirmed her place as the nation's finest woman Olympian with a no-frills march to glory in her last Olympic appearance.
A comfortable winner at 500 meters Saturday, Blair sped around the slick, smooth oval twice as far today, slipping only once from her machine-like pace as she pulled away from longtime rival Ye Qiaobo of China to win the fifth gold and sixth Olympic medal of a 10-year career, more golds than any U.S. woman ever.
Blair, who hasn't lost all year at 1,000 meters, raced home in 1 minute 18.74 seconds, less than a half-second off the personal best of 1:18.31 she posted six years ago at the Calgary Olympics. Her boyfriend, Dave Cruikshank, stared at the number on the scoreboard well off the world record and wondered if it was good enough for the history books. He didn't worry long.
Blair's nearest rival in a field of 36, Germany's Anke Baier, was in the next pair and finished a distant 1.38 seconds back, with Ye another tenth of a second slower to take the bronze.
It was the greatest margin of victory ever in an Olympic women's 1,000 Leah Poulos Mueller, whose husband, Peter, used to train Blair, lost by 1.31 to Soviet Tatyana Averina in 1980 and it was a fitting final chapter to the glorious Blair legacy.
Her sixth medal in four Olympics pushed Blair past Evelyn Ashford, Pat McCormick and Janet Evans, the three U.S. women with whom she began the day tied for most Olympic medals at five.
But it was just another day's toil for the near-flawless Blair, who prepared as usual by munching a peanut butter sandwich and who was cheered by a crowd of 60 in "the Blair Bunch," a gold-hatted gathering of friends and family led by her irrepressible gray-haired mother, Eleanor.
"We don't get blase about gold medals," said Eleanor as the youngest of the six children she raised in Champaign, Ill., mounted the Olympic medal stand for the last time. "I'm just glad she got that record. We were afraid she'd go on forever."
Blair turns 30 next month and plans to retire after next year. She'd hang up the long blades now but can't abide the thought of skipping the World Championships at her home track in Milwaukee next winter. There's no chance she'll stay on till the Games at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, she said. She will be in the stands there, cheering her successor.
"It's sad to know I'm done," said Blair after she'd sung along with the U.S. national anthem one last time and skated her victory lap waving Old Glory. "But looking back, I've got a lot of great memories."
Best of them all, she said, was her first gold in the 500 at Calgary in the world record time of 39.10 that still stands today. That was Blair's first run as an Olympic favorite in the sprints; her only previous Olympic finish had been an eighth as a 20-year-old at Sarajevo in 1984. No one knew if she could take the heat as an Olympic favorite.
Few would argue now that she's not among the greatest pressure performers ever to compete on a world stage. "Something comes over Bonnie when she gets to the starting line," said Eleanor. "She gets that look in her eye."
Who is Bonnie Blair? "The best," said Baier. "I have to say she is a very, very good skater," said Ye, whom Blair has kept at arm's length ever since Ye was barred from competition for steroid use six years ago. "So many gold medals," mused Ye. "I wish I can get just one. But it's over."
If Blair's triumph was matter-of-fact, Ye's was a most poignant bronze medal run. She'd won the overall world sprint title over Blair last year, but struggled this season after having knee surgery and wept openly on the podium tonight.
It was her last Olympic appearance too, she said. "I was sad for my knee," said Ye. "If I didn't have this problem, I am sure I could have made a very good result in the Olympics. I couldn't do my best for the races, which is my last year for sport in my entire life."
Couldn't Ye, also 29, hang on until 1998? "No!" she said. "Forget it!"
It was Ye whom Blair beat twice to take her gold medals at Albertville on an outdoor track in the shadow of the Alps that had turned mushy from warm rain. Blair never faltered there, never stumbled, never failed. It's not in her nature.
"I think I saw her fall once in all the years I've known her," said Chantal Bailey, a teammate who was a year behind Blair at Centennial High in Champaign, "and that was at the finish line. She fell across the line and still got second."
Tonight Blair had a hiccup the tiniest misstep in a corner. She detected it on a TV replay. "There's a little stumble," she said, sounding surprised. "Not too much. I don't think I lost anything there."
Otherwise, the image that hangs in the mind of anyone who watched is of metronomic perfection as the diminutive, thick-thighed Olympian rocketed around the course. She started in the outside lane, which gave her farther to skate on the first circuit, and was behind before she and Ye switched lanes. "But after the second corner she was very close, which was good for her and bad for me," said Ye.
Blair slingshotted past in the backstretch, stayed low, pumped her arms and sped to a commanding lead. It was all Ye could do to hang in, and she nearly fell approaching the finish. Knowledgeable observers said her old rival Blair may well have pulled Ye to the bronze with her torrid pace, and moments later Blair pulled her to the top of the medal stand for a hug.
With Blair 1.38 seconds ahead, everyone else bunched in a fight for what was left. Just six-tenths of a second separated second-place Baier from eighth-place Susan Auch of Canada, who won the silver in Saturday's 500.
Said Auch: "You see a lot of upsets in the Olympics that's the stress of the Games. But with Bonnie, it's never a problem. She controls her head, she's a great competitor, she's always up for the big races."
That remarkable quality stands in stark counterpoint to the travails of Blair's longtime friend and training partner, Jansen, who took 10 years to win his first medal while Blair was filling a hope chest with them.
People are different, said Blair. Everyone fights demons.
And Blair? What does she fear?
"I don't fear anything," said America's greatest woman Olympian.
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