Blair turns in her chair and shakes the mother's hand. "Hiiii," she sings to the silent, slightly stooped old woman. "How are you? It's nice to see you." The first woman now apologizes for interrupting, and Blair says, "No, no, that's all right. It was nice to see you. Thank you." Blair turns back to her own table.
"Urn," she says, trying to act casual, but there goes the chin again. "So anyways...I can't remember what I was talking about." Her eyes are twin pools. She doesn't blink or they'll spill.
It is tempting to say that Blair handles fame so well because she isn't all that famous. But the fact is, few men or women ever know such celebrity. Eleanor Blair literally has her work cut out for her at home, grocery bags filled with newspaper and magazine clippings from this year alone. They will go into custom-made scrapbooks the size and weight of large suitcases. Perhaps it's only the glue, but one's head spins while examining the wildly varied contents on each page.
You spend a few minutes with Andy Rooney, who said in a wet-blanket 60 Minutes piece in 1992 that he was tired of watching Olympic athletes being interviewed on TV with "their grandmothers." The accompanying video showed Eleanor chatting away with Bonnie and her 46-year-old sister, Suzy. Suzy wrote a nice letter to the CBS curmudgeon, calling the error to his attention. Rooney responded with a note of epic apology, now in the scrapbook. "I didn't mean to suggest that either of you looked like a grandmother," Rooney wrote to Suzy, a tad defensively. "Not that there's anything wrong with the way grandmothers look," he continued, scrambling like Fran Tarkenton. "Bonnie made us all very proud...."
After the last Olympics, Blair was flown first-class from Oslo to Los Angeles to do The Tonight Show. She was helicoptered immediately from an LAX rooftop to NBC in Burbank, a route that took her "right over the Hollywood sign," as she gleefully points out. The next day she flew back to Europe to compete. Upon returning to the States, she was given parades in Illinois and parties in Wisconsin. The latter issued her, unsolicited, a new set of license plates for her Jeep: GOLD X5. "It takes most people awhile to figure out what they mean," she says.
Blair met her third president this year, grand-marshaled the Indianapolis 500 and was honored at both a Chicago Cub and a Chicago Bull game. Telling, isn't it, that this last experience was the most revelatory? "The Bulls game was unbelievable," she says. "Especially in the old stadium. The power and the emotion in that arena were just...electrifying. And it lasted the whole game. And it wasn't even the playoffs! What a great atmosphere these guys get to compete in through the whole season."
Scrapbook stories spell Blair's name in Arabic, in Cyrillic, in Chinese, in Japanese and in Norwegian. Bonnie Blair is a crossword-puzzle answer ("40 Across: Wonder Woman on Speed Skates") and a Jeopardy! clue. "She's been a clue at least twice," notes Eleanor, who watches the program every day. "The last time, she was Final Jeopardy!" And yet Final Jeopardy! is the most difficult clue on the quiz show, which suggests that Blair is still largely unknown to a vast segment of Americans.
Let other athletes position themselves as "entertainers," free safeties masquerading as Fred Astaire. Blair knows that fame is poured from a gravy boat: It is not the substance of sport. "Which isn't to say that I don't appreciate being recognized," she is quick to add at the end of lunch. "Because I do. I really do. I mean, this lady"—Blair gestures toward the white-haired woman at the table behind her—"what she said earlier, it's very touching." The chin is going again. "And I appreciate that. And I know it won't last the rest of my life, so I'm going to enjoy it."
The waitress asks Blair for her autograph. Blair signs the place mat. You sign the $30 check.
Let other athletes hold out for eight figures, then speak of money as just a way of keeping score. Get this: For Blair, scores are still a way of keeping score.