"I'm not going to tell you we'll have another five medals in our future," says Casey FitzRandolph, 20, the most promising young American male skater, "but I do think we have a couple of people capable of medaling in '98."
By most accounts, however, there will be very few delays at the metal detector when the U.S. team returns from Nagano, Japan, in 1998. "Two thousand two is a better bet [for medals]," says U.S. sprint coach Nick Thometz. "Most federations take eight to 10 years to build up again."
In the meantime the U.S. will pin its hopes—and its medals, if any—on the Blair apparent, a not-quite-unknown 19-year-old bicycling bass-guitarist named Christine Witty. " Chris Witty has tons of talent," says Auch. "The skating community has always known about her. You guys might not have."
Indeed the American press learned just last weekend of Witty's own quintessentially American story. Witty—who won the 500 meters at the junior world championships last year, after competing in the 1,000 at Lillehammer and coming in 23rd—first raced on a flooded, frigid baseball diamond not more than a few miles from Bud Selig's office in Milwaukee County Stadium. She also narrowly missed making the 1992 Summer Olympic cycling team and may still pedal the 1,000-meter time trial in Atlanta in '96.
It would be a difficult diversion to choose, for last weekend Witty was seventh overall in the worlds as a skater, including a second-place finish to Blair in the 1,000 on Saturday. When asked if there will ever be another Blair, Witty replied emphatically. "I think there will be." She was talking about herself, and her quiet confidence sounded familiar. "Bonnie has inspired me," acknowledged Witty. "She inspires me to this day."
Blair draws her own inspiration from her brother Rob, who persists through life with an inoperable brain tumor. She admires Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed skater and humanitarian. She adores "DJ," Dan Jansen, who served as her surrogate coach in the 1,000 meters on Sunday afternoon—while Rob Blair, Koss and Blair's boyfriend, Cruikshank, looked on.
For her last race in her home country, Blair was paired with Witty. Naturally Thometz could only keep track of one of his skaters. So Blair asked Jansen to "coach" her, and he stood on the backstretch calling out the split times as she left Witty—and a vapor trail—behind her. Blair's time of 1:19.52 was .09 of a second off the track record, set on Saturday by...Blair.
Blair also set the 500-meter track record on Saturday, with a 39.13. Absurdly, Blair could again break her own world record in the 500 on the very day she retires. After World Cup events in Germany and Norway, her final race will be on the fast track in Calgary, the day after her 31st birthday. She could well make her retired-in-their-prime counterparts, Michael Jordan and Jim Brown, look like they stayed too long at the ball.
Then this extraordinary career will be over, and the only clock remaining in her life will be a biological one. Blair would like to marry, have children, coach adolescent skaters and perhaps return to school. "I'm sure she'll spend some time doing what I've been doing," says the banquet-hopping Jansen. "That is, being America's Guest."
One thing is certain. "I'm definitely going to miss hearing the crack of that gun," says Blair. And time was, this had her mother worried. "You wonder if it'll screw up the rest of her life," Eleanor had asked, in the rare quiet of her own home in Champaign, Ill., earlier this winter. "I mean, what does she do for an encore?"