Speed skating champion Bonnie Blair (born 1964) is the most highly decorated American Winter Olympic athlete in history with six medals. She holds five gold medals, for the 500-meter and 1,000-meter events, as well as a bronze medal for the 1,000-meter event. Since her retirement from competition in 1995 at the age of 31, she has turned her stellar Olympic performances into a successful career as a motivational speaker and corporate spokesperson.
Bonnie Kathleen Blair was born on March 18, 1964, in the Hudson River town of Cornwall, New York, and grew up in Champaign, Illinois. She was the youngest of six children, all of whom learned to skate at an early age. Blair herself was introduced to the sport when she was just two years old. She was so small at the time that her parents could not find skates that fit her, so she had to wear shoes under her skates. By the time she was four years old, Blair was racing, and she loved it, competing against her older brothers and sisters and others in elementary and junior high school. Blair later ran on her high school track team, where, she later claimed, she did not stand out among her peers. She ran wherever her coach decided he was missing a body—on the long jump, high jump, short distances, and relays. She also tried her hand at gymnastics for a while.
Blair's introduction to competitive skating was as a pack racer on short tracks where she competed against many people in one race. She was 16 years old when she began Olympic-style racing, which pits only two racers against each other in a competition based on time. In her teens, Blair began to apply herself to the sport of speed skating as she never had before, largely at the encouragement of her friend Dave Silk, who competed on the men's U.S. team. "He's the hardest worker on the team," Blair later told Angus Phillips in the Washington Post, "and he got me into that, too. In Champaign, I'd miss a workout or two. But Dave gave me real direction."
In 1982, when Blair was 18 years old, her trainers wanted to take her to Europe to compete outside of the United States for the first time. She agreed to go, but she lacked the backing to finance the trip. So, the police department in Champaign stepped in to raise money for her trip, holding a series of raffles and bake sales. Also, Jack Sikma, a professional basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks, donated $1,500 for her trip.
Blair's European trip had the desired effect, sharpening her skills for more competition. The year following her return from Europe, she won the 1983 U.S. indoor speed skating championship, a title she won again in 1984. Also in 1984, Blair competed at the Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. She did not win any medals, but it proved a valuable experience for her. In 1985, Blair won the North American indoor speed skating championship, and in 1986, she again won the U.S. indoor title. Now a world-class speed skater, Blair went on to set a world speed skating record in 1987, racing 500 meters in 39.43 seconds.
Blair won her first gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary, Canada. Her win in the 500-meter event broke the world record, which had been set only minutes before by the East German skater Christa Rothenburger. With a new world record of 39.1 seconds, Blair became the first American woman since 1976 to win a gold medal in speed skating. Also at the 1988 Olympics, Blair won the bronze medal for the 1,000-meter event.
At the Olympics, Blair was cheered on by her large extended family, including her parents, her brother Chuck, her sister Mary, along with Mary's husband and children, her sister Susie, her brother Rob and his wife and child, her sister Angela, and her uncle Lennie, along with the friends of all of her family members.
Blair would in later years recall that first Olympic gold medal victory as the high point of her career. "That's not to say I didn't have other great memories," she told Paula Parrish in the Rocky Mountain News, "but I think that had the biggest impact." And, as she told Barbara Matson in the Boston Globe, "Crossing that [finish] line was the happiest moment of my life."
No longer a relative unknown, Blair was considered a favorite when she headed to the 1992 Winter Olympics held in Albertville, France. She surpassed her 1988 Olympic performance, taking home the gold medal not only in the 500-meter event, but in the 1,000-meter race as well. To win the 500-meter event, Blair beat Chinese skater Ye Qiaobo by 18 hundredths of a second. In winning the 1,000-meter event, Blair again beat Ye, this time by a mere two hundredths of a second. It was the first time a woman had won two Olympic gold medals for the 500-meter event in two successive Winter Olympics. Her stellar performance at the 1992 Olympics also earned Blair the Sullivan Award as the Best Amateur Athlete in the United States. Blair dedicated her successes in Albertville to the memory of her father, who had died on Christmas Day 1989.
With her gold medals and winning personality to match, Blair captured the imagination of the American public, becoming a media darling and a favorite among fans. She became almost as well known for her entourage of family and friends—a group deemed the Blair Bunch that had grown to more than 60 people by 1994—who went with her to each of her Olympic competitions to cheer her on from the stands.
Now unquestionably a star, in 1994 Blair went on to her third Winter Olympics, which were held in Lille-hammer, Norway. There she won two more gold medals, for both the 500-meter and the 1,000-meter races. It was another first for a female athlete—no other woman had ever won five Olympic gold medals for individual events. Her total of six Olympic medals (five gold and a bronze) also made her the most successful American Winter Olympian in history. To celebrate, she climbed into the stands, still wearing her skates, to hug her family and friends.
This victory was bittersweet for Blair, since she knew it was to be the last Olympics in which she would compete. She was grateful for all of her successes, however, and for all the wonderful memories they gave her. Most of all, she told Karen Rosen in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1998, "I'm really grateful for VCRs so I can go back and relive it."
Blair competed as a speed skater one more season following her last Olympic win. During this last season, she shattered her world record time for the 500-meter sprint— twice. Her final, record-breaking time for the 500-meter sprint was 38.99 seconds. After this, at the age of 31, she felt she was ready to retire from competitive skating. "I just thought it was the right time," she said of her retirement to Heather McCabe in the Houston Chronicle. "It was a nice ending."
Following her retirement from competitive skating, Blair remained extremely active, both in her sport and outside of it. She went to work coaching the U.S. women's speed skating team, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She and her husband, fellow speed skater Dave Cruikshank, made their home in Milwaukee, and Blair kept up a heavy travel schedule, flying to different cities around the country to meet various corporate endorsement obligations. Blair has also become an accomplished motivational speaker, addressing audiences on such topics as "Achieving Your Personal Best." She has also made television commercials for such major corporations as McDonald's and AT&T. She counts herself lucky in being able to maintain such an active retirement, noting that not all Olympic gold medalists have been as fortunate.
After the turn of the twenty-first century, Blair still found herself involved in speed skating, even though she no longer competed. Instead, she skated vicariously through her husband, who competed in international events. Cruikshank had skated in four Olympics by 1998, and he narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. team for the 2002 Olympics. Blair later credited her husband's continuing involvement in the sport with helping her to make the transition from competition to civilian life.
At the beginning of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Blair again took the spotlight when she became the last torchbearer on the Wisconsin segment of the Olympic torch run in January. She skated twice around the Pettit National Ice Center for a cheering crowd of ten thousand fans before lighting the Olympic caldron set up at the Center. Blair was touched by the adulations of the crowd, saying that she had never heard any group of spectators cheer so hard for her.
In addition to her ongoing endorsement commitments, Blair serves as a sports commentator on the ABC television network and sits on the board of directors of the U.S. speed skating team. Blair has also been involved in the American Brain Tumor Association's efforts to combat this little-understood disease; in 1987, Blair's brother Rob was diagnosed with brain cancer that was deemed terminal. Ten years later, however, doctors were able to remove about half of the tumor, giving Blair and her family hope for a cure.
Encased in a glass tabletop in her house, Blair's gold medals have become part of her daily landscape. "The kids eat cereal on top of it," she told Parrish, "but it's got a heavy top, so nothing gets underneath." Blair lives in Delafield, Wisconsin, with her husband and their son Grant and daughter Blair.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 9, 1998.
Boston Globe, January 9, 2002.
Houston Chronicle, August 13, 1996.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 6, 2002; February 18, 2002.
Rocky Mountain News, February 15, 2002.
Sports Illustrated for Women, February 2002.
Toronto Star, January 11, 1995; March 19, 1995.
USA Today, October 17, 1995.
Washington Post, February 24, 1988.
"Bonnie Blair," HickokSports.com, http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/blairbon.shtml (March 10, 2003).
"Bonnie Blair," Infoplease.com, http://www.infoplease.com/ipsa/A0109013.html (March 10, 2003). □