Just inside the arena's front doors a bronze plaque embedded in the wall commemorates Blair's gold-bronze performance at Calgary. Next to it a second bronze plaque commemorates her two-gold performance at Albertville in '92. A conspicuous space remains, left there before Blair embarked for Lillehammer, for yet another plaque. On the ice, nine kids skate in circles.
"When Bonnie was 15 or 16, there was talk of closing this rink," says Eleanor, her breath visible in the refrigerated air. "She was winning a lot of races at the time, but she was having problems, falling down a lot. She was very active in school. She was on the student council and she was a cheerleader. Those required a lot of time, so she had to make a decision, whether to keep skating or not. She asked her father and me, but we told her, 'You have to make this one yourself.' "
And so she decided. "At some point, the rest of us continued on with our lives and skating became secondary," says her sister Mary, 49, a former national senior champion. "Bonnie dedicated her whole life to it."
"I don't think people realize the self-discipline it has taken," says Rob. "All of the other kids had moved out of the house by the time she started training. Mom and Dad weren't waking her up at 5:30 and telling her to skate or bike or run. She did it all on her own."
In fact, Charles (Chile) Blair insisted that his children's first priority be college. A New York native like Eleanor, he graduated from Yale with an engineering degree in 1935, the peak of the Depression, and he knew well the difference the diploma had made in his own life. But if Bonnie was to make the 1984 Olympic team, she would have to train in Europe, forestalling her higher education. She raised the $7,000 for the trip by herself, soliciting local businesses without luck until the Champaign Policemen's Benevolent Association kicked in the entire amount. Dad softened on his rules, as dads always do with the youngest child. Blair eventually went to Sarajevo and finished eighth in the 500.
Four years later she won the gold and broke the world record in Calgary. Afterward, Chile Blair, then newly stricken with lung cancer, sat down with Bonnie and talked enthusiastically about what she might still accomplish in speed skating. She wondered if she couldn't be the first woman to skate 500 meters in under 39 seconds. "That has always motivated her," says Thometz. "Thirty-nine seconds has been as real a barrier for women speed skaters as the four-minute mile was for Roger Bannister."
And so, as the Champaign tour continues, we travel the roadway that Bonnie bikes along whenever she comes home. "Here's the college she hasn't quite graduated from," says Mom pointedly, pulling into the parking lot at Parkland College, where Blair is two courses shy of a two-year degree. "When she's home, she inline skates in this lot." She walks into the college center and points out, somewhat unnecessarily, the eight-foot-tall painting of the not-quite alumna that hangs in a lounge area. We then pile back into the car, its bumper sticker reading CHAMPAIGN POLICEMEN'S FAVORITE SPEEDER—BONNIE BLAIR.
Two minutes away, just off the school's immaculate campus, the Champaign Park District has erected a monument to 25 area athletes who have participated in the Olympics. Eleanor Blair sizes up her daughter's name, etched on a marble tile on the Illinois prairie. Her raincoat is pulled tight against the mid-November cold. The inscription reads THE THING WE LONG FOR, THAT WE ARE FOR ONE TRANSCENDENT MOMENT.
Chile Blair died on Christmas Day, 1989. Eleanor and the six kids went home from the hospital and numbly opened presents. For so many years the Blair house was filled with people and laughter, but now the kids were grown and only visiting Champaign, their new homes scattered across the country.
Standing before the Olympic monument in 1994, Eleanor is silent for a bit. Then, one transcendent moment.