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The Last Lap
Steve Rushin
February 27, 1995
After racing to another world title, Bonnie Blair leaves the U.S. facing a big chill in her sport
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February 27, 1995

The Last Lap

After racing to another world title, Bonnie Blair leaves the U.S. facing a big chill in her sport

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It has come to this: There is nothing left to say about Bonnie Blair, and not enough time in which to say it. Her story remains as corny and changeless as the Illinois prairie—except that she won the women's world sprint speed skating championship on Sunday, broke her own 500-meter world record the previous weekend and will retire on March 19, never to return to the sport she still rules. This is not a boxing-style "retirement." No, in speed skating only the Zambonis resurface.

Since she won the first of her five Olympic gold medals, with a world record at Calgary in 1988, people have asked Blair why she wanted to continue skating. "Now," she says, "people are asking, 'Why do you want to stop?' "

Why? Perhaps it's because her career came neatly full-oval this month. Some 20 years ago Blair met another kid skater, name of Dan Jansen. "I had a crush on her and the whole thing," he recalls. They became world-famous together in Calgary, their stories forever familiar after Jansen fell the day his sister died and Blair set her first world record, 39.10 in the 500.

She broke that record last March, with a 38.99 in Calgary. That record, in turn, was broken two weeks ago when Susan Auch of Canada skated a 38.94, also in Calgary. But it wasn't Auch alone who broke the record, for she was paired with Blair, who beat her to the finish line in an even swifter 38.69. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Blair would win her third world sprint championship on Sunday in her last race in the U.S., in her adopted home of Milwaukee. And that Jansen would scream out her split times from the infield. And that Auch would say admiringly, "She brings out the best in her competition, because we're always out chasing her."

Afterward Blair alone was typically, maddeningly unimpressed. "I was hoping I could have gone a little faster in the 500," she said of Sunday's winning time of 39.54. "But, hey, I'll take it." She shrugged. Wall maps of Florida do not have lower keys.

Which is where the Blair Bunch comes in. Long before the Loud Family appeared on Saturday Night Live, there was the Blair Bunch, now bloated to some 300 members. They filled 12% of the 2,600 seats in the Pettit National Ice Center for each of last weekend's two sessions. They qualified for the convention rate at the Marriott. They clanged corporate-sponsored cowbells—each bore the Mizuno logo—a testament to their own odd, auxiliary fame. And so Sunday brought a bittersweet epiphany for Eleanor Blair, the 76-year-old matriarch of both Bonnie and the Bunch. "This is the end of my celebrity status," she lamented with a laugh.

The same, alas, might be said of the entire U.S. speed skating program. A two-year-old child can tell you all you need to know about speed skating in America over the last three Olympiads. "My daughter knows skating very well," says Jansen of his own two-year-old, Janie. "She sees pictures on TV and says 'Daddy' or 'Bonnie.' "

But Daddy retired a few months after winning a gold medal in Lillehammer—it was one year ago last Saturday—and now Bonnie will also be bid bon voyage, leaving the U.S. speed skating program with more than a few nasty gaps. "It's natural to have a void in the talent pool," says LeRoy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "But we need to void the void."

Walker spoke with some urgency on Sunday night. For what Blair and Jansen have been to U.S. speed skating, speed skating has been to the U.S. Winter Olympic team. Which is to say, nearly everything. Since 1980, speed skaters have accounted for almost half of the U.S.'s medals at the Winter Games—22 of 50. And yet the sport is so alarmingly under-funded that there is scarcely enough money for airfare to send skaters to Europe. Says U.S. Olympian Brendan Eppert, "I have to go to my family for money."

"We have no feeder system," continues his Olympic teammate Dave Cruikshank, whose 21st-place finish last weekend was the highest among American men. "We don't have enough coaches...."

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