WEST ALLIS, Wis. — Bonnie Blair, who once fled from the pressure of pitching for her softball team, says she'll relax and have fun in the most scrutinized race of her life.
Blair wants the Olympic gold medal in the ladies' 500 meter speedskate, and claims she'll approach this showdown against the East Germans--and others--simply by enjoying herself at the Calgary Winter Games opening Feb. 13. She also is eligible for the 1000 and 1500 meters.
"I'm just going off to have the time of my life," Blair said at the U.S. Olympic time trials. "I don't try to think of too much because then I might screw myself up."
Lots of athletes say they'll relax and have fun, but it doesn't work that way in competition. The pressure hits them, and they start thinking too much. Blair felt the pressure as a softball pitcher and switched to the outfield but you get the impression she won't freeze on ice. For one thing, she has too much discipline to let anything escape her control. Second, she really does seem to enjoy what she does.
"I just love to skate," Blair said. "I look forward to going out on the rink every day. Sometimes it's hard to get off the ice, I'm enjoying it so much. I like to travel. Nothing really seems to turn me off about the sport. I pretty much feel content wherever I am."
Blair, of Champaign, Ill., grew up the youngest of six children. She first wore skates at age 2, and enjoyed other sports, too. She ran some track and played recreational softball but soon decided to avoid the mound.
"That was the one where I felt the whole team was riding on my shoulders, and I couldn't handle that kind of pressure," she said.
Now 23, Blair faces pressure from East German skaters and American expectations. Christa Rothenburger has taken her record in the 500. Karin Kania looks unbeatable in the 1000. Both are East Germans.
Meanwhile, much of the American public knows little of speedskating. They'll simply want medals come February, a fact that seems to irritate one person capable of delivering them.
"We're always looked at every four years so most of the public and the media don't know much about our sport," Blair said. "Last year at World Championships there were medals won but not one of the TV stations covered anything."
Despite some pique, Blair accepts her role as one of the country's best chances at an Olympic medal. She grants interviews, but prefers them in a group. When asked what she would like people to know about her, she claims, "I think everything has been brought out."
Her answers can sound mechanical, as if she has heard all the questions before. Maybe her cooperation stems from a loyalty to speedskating. Perhaps it reflects the discipline that helps her shave hundreths of seconds off her time. Maybe she wants to go first class, not only winning a medal but accepting the publicity that goes with it.
"Sometimes it can get to be hectic when you're given a list of phone numbers and you have to call all these people," she said.
When not on the phone or in front of a camera, Blair often works on her skating form, which already approaches perfection. Experts call her both the strongest and most technically perfect woman on the team. At 5 foot 4 1/2 inches, she creates little wind resistance. She also generates a strong start.
"Her turns are probably the best in the world, of women," said teammate and fellow sprinter Dan Jansen. "She's quick off the line. I guess she's a small power skater. She's not bulky. She's small and she uses all her power."
The combination could mean three Olympic medals: a battle for gold with Rothenburger in the 500, a silver behind Kania in the 1000, and maybe a bronze in the 1500.
"But things have to go right," Blair cautions. "You have to hope that technically you skate a good race, you don't have any slips, just that things go perfectly from when the gun goes off until you cross the finish line. And that I stay healthy up until then."