Blair Wins Fourth Gold Medal
By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 1994; Page A1
HAMAR, Norway, Feb. 20 She's been to the Winter Olympic Games four times now. In that time, American speed skater Bonnie Blair been one of the few constants. She's outlasted the Communist-bloc sports machine and those skaters it seemed to churn out just to breathe down her neck like a hot draft from hell. She's been competing at Olympics long enough to remember Sarajevo as a wonderful spot to hold the Games, not a place where the 10-year-old arena she skated in is being dismantled, its timbers turned to coffins for victims of the war.
Today, a month shy of her 30th birthday, Blair went out, she skated, and the gold-medal result in the 500 meters was as predictable as the metronomic swing of her arms as she orbited the track. With Blair, there's never been any whiff of trouble on the speed skating oval, let alone a spinout into the rinkside padding or some weak-stomached acknowledgment of pressure.
Even on the medal podium, where Blair might have been expected to feel her long competitive past stretching behind her, her sentimentality or sense of accomplishment was accompanied by relief. She fingered her gold medal, got slightly dewy-eyed as she sang the national anthem, and yelped when told that President Clinton was calling to congratulate her, as he had Dan Jansen the day before. But and this is telling Blair just couldn't seem to bring herself to provide the world media gathered at Hamar's Olympic Hall with rhapsodic answers on how it felt now to have just moved into a four-way tie for the all-time lead in Olympic medals won by an American woman.
Blair's career total of four gold medals she also has a bronze now ties her with diver Pat McCormick, swimmer Janet Evans and sprinter Evelyn Ashford for the U.S. women's Olympic record. She's expected to make the record her own in the 1,000 here Wednesday. She has an outside chance at another medal in the 1,500 Monday.
But wax nostalgic about it? Write her own epitaph? Consider another top 3 finish as predestined as the rest of the skating world does?
"I've still got two more races to go," she said. "This is the Olympics. Anything can happen."
But it doesn't. Not to her. It hasn't yet.
Like the pack chasing the pace rabbit at the greyhound track, the world's other speed skaters have been baying after Blair for more than six years now, never seeming to overtake her. Coming into today's race, Blair had lost at this distance only once all year and that to China's Quiabo Ye, whom Blair hasn't felt warmly toward since Ye was banned several years back for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. Though the two are rivals, it wouldn't be right to say Blair's feelings toward Ye are full-blown hate, just a sense of agitation. As Blair put it a few months ago: "She had something in her body that I've never had in mine."
But Ye could say the same of whatever magic Blair was born with in her legs.
The tests say Ye has been long off the drugs. Though she was expected to be a factor today, she faded to 13th while two upstarts Susan Auch of Canada and surprising Franziska Schenk of Germany seized the silver and bronze behind Blair and talked hopefully, as young skaters are wont to do, of threatening Blair more someday soon. Neither Auch nor Schenk would say she went into this race thinking that a victory over Blair was unattainable, even if Balir's world record of 39.10 in the 500 has stood six years and only Blair, with a winning time of 39.25, came close to it today.
Auch, who finished .36 back at 39.61, smiled and said only, "As a competitor, you never want to say Bonnie is unbeatable."
But Schenk, a 19-year-old who joined the senior World Cup circuit full-time this year and shaved more than a half-second off her personal best today, was more forthright. As good as her race was "I couldn't believe it," she gushed her time of 39.70 was still nearly a half-second behind Blair's.
But then, laughed Schenk: "This year, Bonnie was always first, and I was at eighth place, at sixth place, and it was so, so far away. Today it was far away too because she skated so well. And, I would say, everyone expected that. ... No one expected another girl to win."
And so, to keep herself on edge, Blair invents challenges for herself like a lot of great athletes before her have. As she bounced around the World Cup circuit this year she tried to imagine every stop as the Olympics, the better to simulate what she would find here: the self-imposed pressures, the all-or-nothing format of these Games, the premium on making every stroke a technically perfect one since her 5-4, 130-pound frame isn't among the most powerful.
The fields throughout the year were the roughly the same as the one she'd face here. But for all her talking about how this woman or that woman could beat her here at the Games, Blair was hard pressed to correctly pronounce their names in her pre-Games news conference about her races. "There's the Chinese girl ... oh, what's her name. And the Russian girl, Sma , Smwa ... Smavatakaka, maybe? I know it's something like that."
A later comment she made was closer to the truth. "When I'm on the track," she began, "I really believe my main competition is the clock. And myself."
As epitaphs for Blair go, there's no better one.
Just the clock and her, and the rest of the world in her rearview mirror.
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