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Bonniemania brings a crowd together again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALBERTVILLE, France -- They jumped up in their purple Bonnie Blair windbreakers and shouted to the clear sky when she skated around the first turn on the icy oval, coming toward them in the gathering dusk. Forty-four people in all.

There was Bonnie's 73-year-old mother, Eleanor, wearing a mink coat and a gold baseball cap with "Go Bonnie Gold" in black letters. There was Bonnie's brother Rob, the one from Texas with a brain tumor in remission. There was Mary, the sister from Colorado with the loud voice everyone jokes about, wearing this crazy white fur with the Olympic rings on the back.

There was Suzy, the flight attendant sister from Utah, and Angela, the sister Bonnie lives with in Milwaukee. There were Angela's neighbors, the Kents, just friends who got all excited and showed up, and the Marshalls from Maine and the Allens from Minnesota and, oh, yeah, Dave Silk from Montana.

There was 79-year-old Uncle Lenny from Long Island, who is still hearing about forgetting to take off his cap during the gold-medal ceremony in Calgary four years ago. There was 3-month-old Lily Marshall, Bonnie's niece from Napa Valley, Calif., wearing the snazziest pink sunglasses in town.

There were other Bonniemaniacs from Illinois and Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New Hampshire, from Ohio and Washington and Alaska and Calgary. Sisters and brothers and cousins and friends -- and somewhere in there, one more baby on the way. From 17 states and one Canadian province.

Da Blairs.

All of them except Bonnie's father.

They were sitting on the far side of the small Olympic skating stadium yesterday, the electric moment finally at hand for which they had waited for more than a year, after someone -- no one could remember who -- came up with this wild idea of "Operation Bonnie 1992," which was everyone going to France -- France! -- to watch Bonnie skate for another gold medal.

When she went past them yesterday wearing her red-white-and-blue silks in the 500 meters, Rob waved an American flag and put his arm around his mother. They screamed Bonnie's name, but their voices were lost in the avalanche of noise. Everyone in Section O was blowing out their throats.

They had met for lunch near the stadium hours earlier, coming together from their hotels and guest houses spread across the mountain. They got the windbreakers there -- just in. Then they went to the stadium and sat up in the empty stands for hours, a warm sun beating down and the Blues Brothers on the public address system, and they talked on and on about Bonnie and their family and this whole crazy stunt. But mostly about Bonnie.

About this woman with a thin nose and a Midwest twang and a way of collecting people. Such as the Illinois firefighters who gave her money before the Calgary Olympics. And the grade schoolers from New York who made up the posters on the wall yesterday.

Talking about a sweet, happy, tough person from a working family, who talks to everyone and doesn't put on airs because they just aren't in her gene pool. "One of those people who can't help making friends," her mother said. "The phone is always ringing off the hook five minutes after she's home."

Said Ruth Kent, of Milwaukee: "We're all here because she's just such a super girl, a real person. She lives next door to me. I tell her I need her to take my daughter to get a haircut, she just says, 'When?' When we heard all this was happening, we wouldn't have missed being here for anything."

In the beginning there were 22 planning to come, but Bonnie's cousin Kathy Murphy, a stockbroker from New Jersey, kept wheedling cheap fares out of the airlines and uncovering obscure hotels up in the mountains.

"In the end everyone just wanted to ride the wave," Kent said.

There was only one problem. Chile wasn't there.

Bonnie's father's name was Charles, but he got the nickname Chile as a boy -- it was the name of a popular bicycle -- and never lost it. He was a big man who filled up a room, and he worked in the concrete business and was 50 when his wife delivered Bonnie, the last of their six kids.

All but one became a champion speed skater. It started with Mary, the oldest girl, who came home one day in 1956 and said some man at the rink had told her she should skate.

"I wanted white skates. They got me black," she said.

It kept going from there. But all the kids topped out at the sameplace: just shy of the Olympics.

"Chile wanted so badly for one of his kids to make the Olympics," said Uncle Lenny, the unofficial family historian. "He never pushed them an inch, but you could just see it in his face."

So his baby girl wound up being the one, the best of all, and fat tears rolled down his face when she won the gold medal in the 500 in Calgary. There were 20 Bonniemaniacs there that day, but was the only father of the gold medalist. He was 77.

But then his lung cancer started getting to him and he slowed way down. The family gathered in Milwaukee for Christmas two years ago, and it was a big day when Bonnie skated in a race on Christmas Eve and Chile got to leave the house to watch.

He died the next day. "I think he got pneumonia in the stands," Mary said. "It was like 50 below. Bonnie was just coming back from the race and the others were leaving, carrying him in their arms to get him to the hospital."

He was the only one missing yesterday. The only Blair not there.

"I sit here and think about him," said Bonnie's mother, in the stands before the race. "He left me with a wonderful group of kids, this rowdy family of mine. Look at all this commotion. He would have loved this. I wish he was here. I guess he is in a way."

And then it was time for the race and Bonnie was skating past them and down the back straightaway into the far turn, the noise in Section O going up and up until there was no up left. Then she was around the last turn and kicking to the finish, all fury and grace, and the result was on the scoreboard: first place.

Up in Section O, Rob thrust his arms in the air and Eleanor covered her mouth, and everyone started jumping up and down. There were 22 skaters still waiting their turns, but none had the talent to beat Bonnie's time.

When the last of the 22 was done and "Operation Bonnie 1992" had officially gone gold, Bonnie's mother and the 43 others stood in the emptying stands with their purple windbreakers hunched against the evening chill. The mood was laughs and bubbles.

"Just wait until the party tonight," Eleanor said.

"Hey, let's sing," Mary shouted, and everyone cheered the notion, and they kick-started their froggy voices and the words went floating out softly into the moonstruck French night:

"My Bonnie lies over the ocean

My Bonnie lies over the sea

My Bonnie lies over the ocean

Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me."

And then there was Bonnie in the press center a few minutes later, talking about what every one of those 44 people was thinking.

"My dad had more of the Olympic drive than I did," she said, the rims of her blue eyes reddening. "He was always telling me that I was going to skate in the Olympics, and I'd laugh, 'No way, no way.' He saw me win in Calgary, which was great. But this is his medal. Yes. This one goes to him."

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