CALGARY, Canada — The world's best women's speed skater lives in Dresden, East Germany, where, when she isn't adding to her impressive Olympic medal collection, she is a student of cosmetology.
Tall, fast, attractive and powerful, whenever Karin Enke Kania sets skates to ice, there just aren't any blemishes on her performance.
How good is Kania?
Good enough to be one of the most feared women speed skaters in the world for the last eight years.
Fast enough to collect three gold and two silver medals at Lake Placid and Sarajevo.
Superstitious enough to carry with her a stuffed toy belonging to Sasha, her 3-year-old son, for good luck wherever she travels for skating competition.
And dominating enough to be praised by one of her major rivals.
"Obviously, she's the strongest woman in the world in skating," says Bonnie Blair, the best U.S. female skater in the sprints. "Every time she gets on the ice, I'm looking for her to beat the world record. I can't put that past her."
"All I can say is 'thank you,' " she said.
Now, isn't that nice? Maybe a little detente here between East and West? "I've never talked to her about any rivalry between us," Blair said. "I don't think there's any bitterness between us. Granted, I don't speak German, though."
Kania speaks enough English to make herself known. She feels uncomfortable in interview sessions with large groups of reporters, but when she speaks with one reporter at a time, Kania's confidence in her English suddenly improves.
"(Blair) is a very fast skater," Kania said. "Our relationship on the ice, I think, is very good. I like to race together with Bonnie. She has a great future, no?"
Yes. Well, maybe. The problem with Blair's future is that Kania is in it. How did she get there? Almost by chance, it seems.
Kania began her athletic career as a figure skater in 1965 when she was 4. Little Karin tagged along for her brother Holger's training class. Her mother, Marianne Enke, wanted 6-year-old Holger to master double and triple jumps in figure skating, but she didn't know what to do with Karin. So, a coach gave Karin a pair of skates and included her in the class.
Until 1979, Kania was a figure skater. She even competed in the 1977 European championships and finished eighth. Then, suddenly, she quit the sport and took up speed skating. There was one reason.
"I grew," she said. "My figure is no good for figure skating."
Kania stands 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 160 pounds, so her size and strength are suited to the middle-distance sprints, possibly more than the 500 meters, which is Blair's best event. At the World Cup competition in Calgary in early December, Kania skated a world-record time of 1 minute 18.11 seconds in the 1,000 meters. She is also the world record-holder in the 1,500 meters, but setting records and winning medals is something Kania has always done easily.
East German speed skaters have won 150 medals at European and world championships and at the Olympics. Kania has won 19 of them.
It didn't take her very long to get her first medal. After training for a year, Kania's first race was in January, 1980, in Norway.
"I made a very bad race," she said. She finished 17th.
Her next race was at the World Championships in West Allis, Wis., her last chance to compete before the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
"It was good," she said. Kania won her first gold medal.
Two weeks later, Kania got her second gold medal, winning the 500 meters at Lake Placid.
Since she began speed skating, Kania has won a total of 71 gold and silver medals and although she is clearly the star of the East German team, her private life is kept pretty quiet.
Kania's second husband is Rudolph Kania, who teaches something comparable to 10th grade. She married him in the summer of 1984. They live in Dresden, where their son, Sasha, who turned 3 a few weeks ago. His mother, however, wasn't home for the birthday party.
"The buildup for the Winter Games requires determined training," an East German spokesman explained.
The East German skater's commitment is not easy, as Blair sees it, although her perspective is from a distance.
"I do look up to the East Germans because they're the top skaters," she told the Sporting News. "But, really, I feel sorry for them more than I envy them.
"They may be national heroes at home, while few people in the United States are able to name the top American skaters. But the East Germans have to pay a heavy price for it because of the loss of their individuality."