Blair sits down for rewarding second helping U.S. victor stays low, moves up all-time list


ALBERTVILLE, France -- She heard nothing.

That she could tell you. Her coach, Peter Mueller, was skating alongside her, screaming the split times. The crowd of 8,000 was shouting. And of course, those 44 friends and relatives of hers in the purple-and-white jackets were chanting, "Go, Bonnie, go."

But the sounds never penetrated the wall she had built around herself.

"You're oblivious out there," she said.

This was personal. This was between Bonnie Blair and the clock. Between Bonnie Blair and history.

Yesterday, she gave this sport of speed skating a moment framed against a backdrop of pure Alpine beauty. Crouched as if she were carrying a piano on her back, she played the most beautiful music of all at the Winter Olympics.

She won another gold medal. She became an Olympic legend.

The record will show that 27-year-old Bonnie Blair of Champaign, Ill., won the women's 1,000 meters in 1 minute, 21.90 seconds. But it won't tell you what it looked like. She pumped her arms and her legs until they burned. She finally strode alone on a glistening oval as night beckoned and a record tumbled.

"When you're skating, you want to sit low," she said. "You keep telling yourself, 'Sit down.' The more I thought about getting TC lower and lower, the more my legs wouldn't let me. The last part of the race is the toughest. You have to hold yourself together."

She did.

Four days after winning a gold medal in the women's 500, four years after taking a 500-meter gold at the Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Blair found herself a place in a history book.

She became America's all-time women's Winter Olympic gold-medal winner with three, surpassing the two career golds won in 1952 by skier Andrea Mead Lawrence.

Add the bronze she won in the 1,000 in 1988, and she is No. 2 with a bullet on the all-time U.S. winter medal list, behind speed skater Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980.

To judge her now, you have to place her alongside the American athletes of summer. Only three other women have won as many golds, track sprinters Wilma Rudolph and Florence Griffith-Joyner and swimmer Mary T. Meagher. And they each earned one of their medals in a relay.

"I wasn't aware of those stats," Blair said. "That is definitely a nice honor to have. I'm proud of that. I'm glad to bring some more medals to the U.S."

Throw out the female stars such as Blair and Donna Weinbrecht (freestyle skiing moguls), and the United States would be 0-for-gold in Albertville.

But Blair has given these Games a hook. It still doesn't feel like winter down in the valleys of the Savoy. Ice melts. Temperatures hit the mid-50s. And cyclists cruise along muddy streets wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts.

But out on a track, Blair reminds you that these are games of winter, not spring. Bound up in a body suit with a hood, she sprints around an oval, cutting through wind, breaking through personal barriers.

She skated in the third pair of the day and then waited for the others to catch her.

The challenge came three groups later. Ye Qiaobo, of China, the silver medalist in the 500, was paired with Germany's Monique Garbrecht. They battled one another -- and the clock. Ye won -- and lost. She finished in 1:21.92 and missed the gold by .02 seconds. And Garbrecht took the bronze in 1:22.10.

Ye, who wept Monday after telling her tale of personal woe, of how she returned to the sport after a doping scandal kept her out of the 1988 Olympics, said little yesterday. Instead of speaking in English, as she did Monday, she spoke in Chinese, explaining through a translator, "I can't express myself well enough in English."

Ye smiled. The two officials with her frowned.

But this was Blair's day. The 2-year-old girl who was pushed on to the ice in a pair of hand-me-down skates had grown up into a champion. Like another legend, quarterback Joe Montana, Blair speaks in platitudes, rarely offering much insight into her demanding sport.

She trains with the guys. She can squat press 265 pounds. She stokes her interest by watching the clock.

"You can see your progress," she said. "You can look for little goals and look to improve in little places. Plus, I love what I'm doing."

Later, with that gold medal dangling around her neck, she would say this wasn't her best race, it wasn't even her best week. But her Olympics had ended as it began. With a win. With a chunk of history to call her own.

Asked how it all felt, she could only smile and say: "I'm relieved."

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