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Blair's coach: She has chance to be greatest skater in history


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Every four years they move in and out of the American sports consciousness as quickly as they move on their long blades. Their celebrity is usually measured in their time on the ice.

Even when Eric Heiden flashed through Lake Placid in 1980 with a record five gold medals, he soon seemed to vanish.

They are speed skaters, and even if one wins an Olympic gold medal, the face might be familiar but the name is not. As the 1988 women's 500-meter Olympic gold medalist discovered not long after returning from Calgary, Alberta.

"I know you," a New York cop told her. "I know you."

"I'm the speed skater," she replied. "Bonnie Blair."

"That's it," the cop said. "You're the speed skater."

The speed skater is 27 now. But with her tiny face that appears to have been drawn by a Disney artist, Bonnie Blair looks as if she is still a teen-ager. Her high-pitched voice always seems to be on the verge of cracking. Before every race she has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a back rub.

But now Bonnie Blair is more than just the speed skater. She's the best female speed skater the United States has ever produced.

By winning another 500 gold medal yesterday, she created a historic women's double in what is primarily a European sport: the first to win the 500 in successive Winter Olympics and the first American to win two gold medals.

Only three other American women have won speed-skating gold medals -- Anne Henning the 500 and Dianne Holum the 1,500, in 1972, and Sheila Young the 500, in 1976.

"Dianne was more of an all-around distance skater," said Terry McDermott, the 1964 men's 500 gold-medalist who is now the U.S. team manager. "Sheila fits into the same category as Bonnie, but she didn't have the two back-to-back gold medals. Anne was as talented a skater as we've ever had, but she quit when she was 17; she was in only one Olympics."

In those years, American speed skaters stopped competing at a younger age because there was no financial future in it. But under Olympic rules now there's commercial money out there.

As she swooped around the outdoor oval in 40.33 seconds, Blair wore Oakley sunglasses, to keep, she explained later, her eyes from watering once she glides onto the ice. She also has contracts with Visa, Xerox, Evian, Chrysler, Kraft and Mizuno that added to the burden of trying to be the first women's Olympic 500 champion to repeat.

"That's what I wanted to do more than anything," she said.

As the world-record holder in the 500, Blair was considered a lock. Her teammate, Dan Jansen, had even said, "after Bonnie wins ..." And before yesterday's race, U.S. coach Peter Mueller, the 1976 gold medalist in the men's 1,000, had only a few words of advice for her.

"I just told her, 'Be yourself, be Bonnie Blair out there,' " Mueller said. "The only way she could lose the race was to beat herself."

And when Blair burst the first 100 meters in 10.71 seconds, the best of any of the other 33 skaters, Mueller thought the gold was hers.

"We had worked on that; she had done a lot of sprints with Dan Jansen, Nick Thometz and David Besteman," he said, referring to three members of the men's team.

"They all take care of her. She's definitely the best technical skater in the world. She's real dynamic. She skates a fantastic corner. She's real graceful, real natural. She's got a good start, a good straightaway. And when she gets into this kind of condition, nobody can beat her."

Not in the 500. And maybe not in Friday's 1,000, in which she won a bronze medal four years ago. She also has a chance for a gold medal in the 1,500 tomorrow.

"She has a chance to be the greatest woman skater in history," Mueller said. "Lydia Skoblikova won six Olympic gold medals, but Bonnie's got a shot at that."

Skoblikova won two golds in 1960 and four golds in 1964 while representing the Soviet Union. But if Blair were to add another gold medal or two here and two or three more in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway, she would approach that record total, if not surpass it.

"I don't know about Lillehammer yet," Blair said. "I want to wait until the end of the season before I decide."

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