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There are no sequins in women's speed skating. No death-drop necklines or feathered hats. Nobody gets points for lipstick or meaningful eye contact. And there are no we-can-still-get-'em-with-the-Gilbert-and-Sullivan-number second chances.
There are only fast women waiting for a gun. They are tough, and they dress not to flirt but to fly. One such woman is Bonnie Blair of Champaign, Ill., who early last week lined up for the start of the women's 500-meter race at Calgary's Olympic Oval bent on proving she was the grittiest of them all. "It's hard to describe Bonnie," her teammate Mary Docter had said. "She's just a tough chick."
But even for a tough chick, the vise on her temples must have felt Olympic-sized. All around her were people she did not want to let down. In the stands to her right were more than 20 friends and family members, including Charlie, her father, who 23 years earlier had been officiating a skating meet at a rink when he heard over the loudspeaker: "Looks like the Blairs have another skater." The newborn was Bonnie. Also in the stands last week was Rob, her brother, with a four-month-old baby strapped to his chest. Rob's old fraternity buddy at Illinois Wesleyan, Milwaukee Bucks center Jack Sikma, who had donated $1,500 to Bonnie's Olympic effort, couldn't make it, but he was watching the race on TV in New York.
To Blair's left, along the rail, was her boyfriend, U.S. speed skater Dave Silk, who said he was "more nervous for Bonnie's race" than he had been for his own. Next to him was Blair's skating godmother, former Canadian speed skating star Cathy Priestner, who had talked Blair into switching from pack-style racing to Olympic-style speed skating and had arranged for her to use the University of Illinois rink for practice at six o'clock in the morning.
And back at Doyle's, a bar in Champaign, a whole platoon of cops was screaming, singing choruses of "Bonnie B. Goode" and crossing their fingers. On their cars outside, the bumper stickers read: CHAMPAIGN POLICEMEN'S FAVORITE SPEEDER: OLYMPIAN BONNIE BLAIR. The police have been on Blair's case since 1982. Back then Champaign's finest gave her checks, while all she got from the local businessmen were a lot of good luck's.
Now, as she hunkered down into the speed skater's awkward starting crouch, she had a chance to pay off her sponsors with the ultimate currency—an Olympic gold medal. See? Ways to disappoint were everywhere. In a Winter Olympics two quarts low on American heroes, Blair was being counted on to mine gold—never mind that she didn't even own the world record in the 500. You want pressure? She had even made the cover of LIFE. And with the men's team having fallen the week before, both literally and figuratively, she was suddenly Bonnie-on-the-spot.
"But she's not like other skaters," said Dan Immerfall, the assistant U.S. speed skating coach. "She holds up to it. Bonnie is as hard as nails."
That you could gather from the taut muscles visible beneath her close-fitting, orange-and-gray racing skin. But was she that hard inside? If you could have seen her at noon the day of the race, you might have called Doyle's and told them to cancel the champagne. She was feeling jumpy, uneasy. She had a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, went back to her room in the Olympic Village, put her feet up and tried to relax.
Later, at the rink, her chief rival, Christa Rothenburger of East Germany, didn't help matters much. Racing two pairs before the one Blair would be in, she put up a world record 39.12. That was enough to make anybody's PB&J do somersaults.
Still, Blair knew Rothenburger's time was not unassailable. "You can go faster than that," U.S. speed skating coach Mike Crowe told her minutes before she raced. "I know," said Blair. She also knew she would have to push her 5'5", 125-pound body around the oval like never before.