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Yanks on The Move
Shannon Brownlee
January 27, 1988
Bonnie Blair and Nick Thometz could bring home the first U.S. medals since the days of Eric Heiden
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January 27, 1988

Yanks On The Move

Bonnie Blair and Nick Thometz could bring home the first U.S. medals since the days of Eric Heiden

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A doting family and big brothers and sisters to chase have combined to produce a young woman who is at once fierce in competition and disarmingly ebullient. She's popular with her teammates, especially Dave Silk, an all-rounder from Butte, Mont., who, Bonnie says, is not only her boyfriend "but my best friend."

On the ice, though, Blair admits, "I'm aggressive. To me, to race is to go all out, every time." She pushes herself to keep pace behind her male teammates during practice, and she is constantly checking out her performance with coach Crowe: "How'd that turn look? What should my pulse be?"

Blair and Thometz make speed skating look like dancing. Their blades inscribe symmetrical S curves on the ice as they push off each skate with a nice fluidity. This poetic motion allows them to translate the full power of their strokes into forward momentum. The secret to winning races, Thometz says, "is learning to skate technically well even when your legs feel like they're going to blow up."

Increasingly American skaters have devoted themselves to honing technique rather than building strength. In Europe, speed skaters are subsidized throughout their careers, and they're often bigger, stronger, older and more experienced than U.S. skaters. Blair's principal competitors in Calgary will be a couple of powerful East Germans, Karin Kania (formerly Enke), who is 5'10" and 160 pounds, and Christa Rothenburger. Only 5'5" and 125 pounds, Blair will have to combat their raw power with a shotgun start that makes her so formidable in the sprints and sound technique. She never scrambles—what skaters call "running."

"Bonnie worked on her technique because she's small and she knew it was the only way to beat the Germans," says Crowe. Last year she easily won the World Cup titles for 500 and 1,000 meters and placed second overall in the World Sprint Championships. She was beaten only once in the 500 meters, by Rothenburger in her first event at the Sprints. "The next day I was paired with her I in the 500-meter event], and I just killed her," Blair says.

Where Blair shows a killer instinct, Thometz is serene and diffident, both on the ice and off. Blond and blue-eyed, he grew up in Minneapolis, a city with a Scandinavian accent, and though his family is of Yugoslav and German extraction, he displays a Nordic introspection and self-control. He began skittering around on the Minnesota ice with his brothers and sisters when he was only four. Later, Nick tagged along to speed skating practice with his brother Kent, who is five years older and was twice an Olympic alternate.

Very early the youngest Thometz showed a surprising ease on skates, yet his decision to become a speed skater was less a foregone conclusion than Blair's. The 5'9", 165-pound Thometz has a well-balanced body, and he moves with a feline sureness that has allowed him to excel at many sports. "I was always able to run faster than other kids," he says. "My parents aren't exactly athletic, so who knows where I got it from." He began racing pack-style at seven, and in junior high he ran track and played baseball, soccer and hockey. He graduated from high school with honors and made the dean's list in his first year at the University of Minnesota.

This is a young man with intelligence and natural athletic ability, but scaling the Olympian heights requires something more—a commitment. Thometz's commitment began in 1976 when he attended a regional training skating camp. He was only 13, but his precocious grace so impressed Peter Schotting, the U.S. team coach who was at the camp, that he invited the boy to Squaw Valley, Calif., to train with the national team. From then on, Thometz devoted himself to metric skating.

"I don't know why I decided," he says, considering how punishing the workouts were. "I thought. So this is what you have to go through to be that good." He muses for a while, his eyes clear and arresting even when he's lost in thought. "It seems so young to make a choice like that, doesn't it?"

Not for some Olympic events, like gymnastics or swimming, but speed skating is something of a late-bloomer's sport; it takes considerable stamina and musculature (witness his startlingly well developed thighs) to reach the top, and not surprisingly, Thometz had to wait a long time before his dedication paid off.

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