The Audio engineer needed a mike check. "Bonnie, could we get a level on you?"
" Bonnie Blair, speed skater," Bonnie Blair said.
On too few hours' sleep, with several celebratory pints of Norway's answer to the product that made Milwaukee famous still coursing through her, the most gilded American woman in Olympic history spent last Thursday pinballing from interview to interview. The schedule had been set up by her agent, a guy from Advantage International named L. Parkes Brittain III. First came a chat with Harry Smith at the Farm, the set from which CBS anchored the Winter Games. There followed a mass session with the media at the Main Press Center. ("She just won two gold medals," a U.S. Olympic Committee press officer told a security guard who had regarded Blair's credentials with skepticism when she tried to enter the building. "Don't those count?") Now, as John Naber chatted with her while preparing to interview her for the TNT network, Blair was trying to portray herself not as a gold medalist, not even as an Olympian, but as just a humble speed skater. Blair had now won five Olympic gold medals, surpassing sprinter Evelyn Ashford, swimmer Janet Evans and diver Pat McCormick, winners of four each. But her achievements had left her largely unaltered.
Bonnie Blair, speed skater, should think nothing of sauntering up to Viktor Petrenko, the Ukrainian who won the men's figure skating gold medal for the Unified Team at the 1992 Winter Games, to discuss the finer points of blade sharpening or some such. Instead, when she espied elite athletes like Petrenko in the Olympic Village last week, she was as slack-jawed as she had been back at her first Olympics a decade ago in Sarajevo. "I don't see myself as being up on a podium," she said, "but I see them that way."
Yet she was up on that podium again last week, and that's why everyone shot questions at her. They wanted to know if she would be retiring. (Not until after next season, because the world championships will be in her current home of Milwaukee, and she wants to skate in front of the home folks.) They wanted to know which American Olympians she was most thrilled to have joined the company of. (She ticked off names, but not the ones you would expect; she mentioned only speed skaters Beth Heiden, Sheila Young and Sarah Docter.) They wanted to know if there was anything left for her to accomplish. (There is: breaking the 39-second barrier in her specialty, the 500 meters.) Milwaukee, speed skating, a few hundredths of a second—those are the most important things to her, the borders of Blair's world.
"People ask me, 'Can't you get her to say anything else?' " says U.S. speed skating publicist Susan Shaw, who was Blair's liaison at the Games. "But that's who she is. She takes one race at a time and doesn't seem to have a sense of the big picture. If she does, she doesn't tell us."
The press tried to get at something more cosmic, nonetheless. What kind of legacy are you going to leave?
"I don't know if I really understand your question," she said.
What does it mean to have more golds than any other American woman?
"I really don't know what to say," she said.