Interstate 74 lies like a licorice whip across central Illinois. This is Middle America, what weathermen call "our nation's midsection," the country's symbolic center of gravity. And so a 90-mile twist of I-74 takes one from the American bellwether of Peoria, past the felicitous municipality of Normal and into the hometown of our most gilded Olympic heroine, WELCOME TO CHAMPAIGN, the sign begins, giving way to staccato word bursts: HOMETOWN OF BONNIE BLAIR; OLYMPIC LEGEND; PLEASE BUCKLE UP.
Please buckle up. Between sports and real life, life still gets the last word here. Weeks before Bonnie Blair won the first of her five Olympic gold medals, more than any other American woman has ever won, this item appeared in a Champaign church bulletin: "St. Matthew's Parish is proud of parishioner Bonnie Blair, the United States' #1 woman speed skater. Our prayers are with you Bonnie. Good Luck in Calvary! Bingo captain for January 6 is Dena Morgan."
Now, those 1988 Winter Games were held in Calgary, the Canadian cow town, not on Calvary, the site of Christ's crucifixion. But if the typo wasn't enough to put sport in its proper context, there was always Blair's placement in the bulletin, penultimate to the...bingo captaincy. In a sport that demands perfect balance, is it any wonder where Bonnie Blair got her uncommon equilibrium?
"Bonnie doesn't know she's a celebrity," says her mother, Eleanor. "She sees herself as a regular person." And how many athletes have that backward? Deion Sanders doesn't know he's a regular person; he sees himself as a celebrity. In an age of larger-than-life "personalities," Blair is well aware of the truth: Life is a larger-than-she personality.
For seven years her brother Rob has borne a tumor on the left side of his brain. It is inoperable. He is frequently felled by seizures, each one like a stroke, leaving the 39-year-old to learn, again and again and again, how to use the right side of his body.
"The stronger I am, the longer I'll survive," he says. "And I plan on beating it. I watch what Bonnie does, and that just feeds into me. She has said that I've inspired her, and that's nice of her to say. But I've gotten a lot more from her example than the other way around."
Bonnie Blair owns a time-share in the international spotlight: She gets it for two weeks every Olympiad, and then they ask her to leave. Her life has been a furious blur of flashing blades, like a Benihana chef's, but when she retires from competition in March just before she turns 31, it will not be as a wealthy woman. No one gets into speed skating to make a pile. "There's hardly any money to be gotten out of it," says Rob, a former North American short-track champion. "Unfortunately." He pauses. "Boy," he says finally, a lightbulb buzzing to life above his head. "Did we ever screw up!" And then he laughs this Gatling-gun laugh, the one all members of the impossibly large Scottish-Irish Blair clan seem to laugh all the time.
"We do it because we love what we're doing," Bonnie says of speed skaters. "I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would accomplish what I have in the sport. I can walk away with that and be totally content. And more so. I never got into it to make money. I never dreamed of getting into speed skating to do a commercial or public-speaking engagements. Some people are lucky if those things happen. But it doesn't happen to everyone."
It doesn't? The Nike deal is not an athlete's inalienable right? No, the only Olympic skater who got money from Nike in 1994 was...Tonya Harding. The Olympic skater who was "going to Disney World" was Nancy Kerrigan, who didn't even wait for the parade to end before declaring it "the most corniest thing I've ever done."
"Bonnie would have been thrilled to pieces to be in that parade," says Eleanor Blair, sounding like a mother. Rather than redeem for cash the two golden tokens she won in Lillehammer last February, Blair remained in Europe after the Olympics, competing without pause on the World Cup circuit for a month before returning to her town house near the national speed skating center in West Allis, Wis., just outside Milwaukee.