Facebook Twitter



Though she has a very realistic shot at winning three, and has to be regarded as a heavy favorite for at least two, by winning just one medal next month in Norway, speedskater Bonnie Blair will become the most decorated American woman in Winter Olympic history.

Too few people will mark the moment and even less will celebrate it. Fewer still will probably remember. Maybe image IS everything.If you want drama, both high-brow and lowdown, then follow figure skating and its fascinating subplot: Nancy Kerrigan, the always elegant and suddenly sympathetic princess, vs. Tonya Harding, the rough-edged, tough-talking, just-crowned U.S. queen.

But if you want something really memorable, follow Bonnie Blair.

Skating figurines come and go, usually on to something really important and profitable, like the "Ice Capades." But if Blair lacks anything as a champion, it's only endorsements and attention. The only thing she dresses to impress is the clock. But what she gives up in sequins, she gets back with speed. Everything she promises, she delivers. And in a way, that can be measured.

On Sunday afternoon, Blair cruised to a 1:20.46 clocking over 1,000 meters in her final run at the U.S. Olympic long track speedskating trials. It marked her eighth track record in nine races. Such domination over a sport is not that rare and, even so, the records were all set at the Pettit National Ice Center, a new indoor facility with a fast surface. But consider that on this afternoon, Blair was preparing for her fourth Olympics, already having won two golds at 500 meters and another gold and a bronze at 1,000 meters.

Few American women can boast of such sustained excellence at the top levels of any sport. If Blair played tennis, she would be Chris Evert; if she played golf, she would be Mickey Wright; if she ran, Evelyn Ashford.

But Blair doesn't have outrageous stories about herself or her past, at least stories she will tell, and she doesn't boast. She can be uncommunicative or uninteresting when she pleases. And so she sneaks up on her crowning moment in relative silence. And likes it that way.

"Because I can still go to the grocery store without it being a problem," Blair said, and then added a moment later: "There are pluses and minuses that go with a high profile. Take what happened to Nancy Kerrigan . . ."

It is a recent, but tough example to settle on, yet Blair is apparently not entirely the lighthearted soul that comes across in those shots where she waves at her family before going to pick up another piece of hardware. She has an edge about her that only the people who share the ice with her know.

Mary Docter, one of her teammates on the 1988 squad and a veteran herself, marveled as Blair stared down and then ran down, in world-record time, the cold-eyed East Germans at Calgary. "It's hard to describe Bonnie," she said. "She's just a tough chick."

And Peter Mueller, who was Blair's coach until recently, never held a conversation about her in which the word "lethal" was not mentioned a half-dozen times.

Naturally, someone asked Bonnie on Sunday how she managed to get herself up for this competition, when she really had none.

"I'm the one who puts pressure on myself. The gun goes off," Blair said, "and I just want to go."

The most suspenseful part about this latest quest could well be Blair's performance at 1,500 meters, a distance she has yet to master.

China's Ye Qiaobo, who pushed Blair in both the 500- and 1,000-meter races at Albertville, is recovering from knee surgery and is expected to come in at less than 100 percent healthy. On top of which, Blair has only lost once in eight races over those distances this season. Neither of those things, however, will mean much to her when the starter's pistol is fired over there.

And be sure when it does and Blair wins, she will be even more revered in Holland, where she is already as revered as Hans Brinker. And that she will still be less known than Hans Brinker back here. Too bad.