As Bonnie Blair got set for the start of her final race at the National Sprint Speedskating Championships in Butte, Mont., on Sunday afternoon, a stiff, cold wind was blowing in her face and the snowy slopes that mark the continental divide loomed behind her. If you knew nothing about Blair, you would have pitied her. That would have been a serious mistake. At the 1988 Olympics, Blair won the gold medal at 500 meters and the bronze at 1,000; last year she claimed her first world sprint title.
Compared with the gulf that separates Blair from the other U.S. women, the great divide is a topographical trifle. "Bonnie doesn't have any competition in this country," said Eric Flaim, who won the only other U.S. speed skating medal at the Calgary Games, a silver in the 1,500. "She competes against the East German girls, and that's all she has."
Despite the choppy winds, Blair ended the weekend as she had begun it, by annihilating the opposition. Her time was relatively slow—1:28.56 for 1,000 meters—yet it put Blair .8 of a second ahead of Moira D'Andrea, who finished second in the overall standings. That was as close as anybody got to Blair all weekend. She won her first three races—a 500 and a 1,000 on Saturday, and a 500 on Sunday—by margins of more than two minutes.
Though Blair isn't counting, she has won five straight U.S. sprint titles. "This isn't a meet I have to peak for," she said matter-of-factly. "It's nice that I don't have to worry, but I'd like to see the girls get a little closer to me, and they are. They're getting better." Blair will lead a team of D'Andrea and Peggy Clasen to the World Sprint Championships on Feb. 24-25 in Troms�, Norway, a few glaciers north of the Arctic Circle, where, says D'Andrea, "I've heard it's dark all the time."
Blair is determinedly vague about what lies beyond the world championships. She knows that the trick to successfully defending her Olympic title will be getting to the Albertville Games in 1992 with the edge of her enthusiasm still sharp. So she searches constantly for ways to sustain her interest. Last spring she hung up her skates and moved to Indianapolis, where for four months she trained as a cyclist, finishing a decidedly un-shabby fourth overall in her first national match sprint competition.
The men's competition in Butte was a tad closer than the women's. Could it have been otherwise? Dan Jansen had the fastest time in Saturday's opening event, the 500 (37.91), but he did not skate blithely away from the field with each ensuing race as Blair did. He was, however, the most consistent of the men, adding two second-place finishes and another first to take the overall title from defending champion Nick Thometz. "Dan's getting faster every year," said U.S. coach Mike Crowe. "He used to be a powerful, explosive skater. Now he's adding technique. He's had problems with his turns, and in a long race—like the 1,000—having five consistent good turns is crucial."
Second place overall went to Thometz, who on Sunday skated the fastest 500 of the meet, 37.19. "In these conditions," said Crowe, "that's flying." Thometz's time was not only a national championship record but also the fastest 500 ever skated on U.S. ice. The courageous Thometz is competing in the face of a mystery. He suffers from a blood disorder that produces low platelet levels and which sapped his strength in Calgary. "It's chronic," says Thometz, who nevertheless treks to specialists in hopes of learning more about the disorder. So far, no one has even been able to tell him whether or not the condition affects his skating. So Thometz refuses to dwell on it. "I just can't afford to think like that," he says.
At the world championships, the U.S. men's team of Jansen, Thometz, Flaim and newcomer Dave Besteman will have to think positively. With defending champion Igor Zhelezovski of the Soviet Union and Olympic 500-meter champion Jens-Uwe Mey of East Germany in the field, the metals in Troms� will be precious indeed. But an old mining town such as Butte is not a bad place to start digging.