AS the most successful female American athlete in Winter Olympic history, speed skater Bonnie Blair has competed in four consecutive Olympics and collected five gold medals and a bronze.
Along the way, Olympic spectators have come to know Blair as ``America's little sister'' - an all-American girl with a bubbly personality and ready supply of enthusiasm. But this little sister does things her own way.
Following the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, this past February, Blair chose not to retire immediately or spend much time celebrating or securing commercial contracts.
``I still had one more goal that I wanted to try to accomplish,'' Blair says during a visit here for the opening of the United States Olympic Festival, now under way. That goal was to beat her own world record in the 500 meters, set at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Blair was determined not only to beat her record of 39.10 seconds but to shatter the 39-second mark. ``This was like the ultimate barrier of the four-minute mile for track,'' she says.
The World Championships were being held in Calgary in March, and Blair says she could not resist the opportunity to compete one more time on ``one of the fastest tracks in the world.'' It's a personal favorite, she explains.
Just weeks after turning 30, Blair achieved her goal, skating the 500 meters in 38.99 seconds in Calgary. ``I'll never forget seeing those numbers,'' she says. ``Who would have thought that, at the age of 30, I would have been able to go faster than I ever had?''
Meeting personal goals is what drives Blair. Earning medals and fulfilling other people's expectations trail far behind.
IN Norway, Blair was thrilled with her performance in the 1,500 meters even though she missed the bronze medal by 3-100ths of a second. ``To me that was OK, because I skated a personal best record,'' Blair says. ``It was the first time I had skated a personal best in any race in six years. Sure, I had missed a medal, and if I had gotten a bronze medal I would have been that much more excited. But I skated faster than I ever had, and I was happy with that.''
As the last of six speed-skating Blair children, the pint-sized Bonnie first took to the ice when she was two years old. ``If I wanted to be with my brothers and sisters, I had to go to the track,'' Blair recalls. ``They didn't have skates to fit me at that time, so they left my shoes on inside the skates.'' At age 4, Blair began competing.
More than a quarter century since her first speed-skating competition, Blair says she still enjoys the sport as much as ever. ``It's an amazing sport,'' she says. ``It's the fastest that humans can go [under their own power] without the help of gravity.''
Unlike downhill skiers, speed skaters must find every ounce of propulsion from within. And unlike figure skating, speed skating is not subject to the whims of human judges. ``We're not really even racing each other,'' Blair says. ``We're racing the clock. You're paired with someone, but that's just a name drawn out of a hat. Your real opponent is time. There are no elimination heats, semis, or finals. As a long-track speed skater, you only get one shot at winning every time you compete.''
Blair thrives on the solitary aspect of the sport: ``You ultimately realize that you're always competing against yourself. It's just you and whatever you bring to the starting line on that particular day.''
Before the last Olympics, Blair asked Nick Thometz - a former Olympic speed skater and assistant coach - to be her full-time coach. Working together, they reworked Blair's training strategy.
``We changed things quite a bit,'' she says. ``Our emphasis was more on the quality of the work, not the quantity. A lot of times, the American approach to speed skating has been `more, more, more.' More weights, more laps, more bike rides. Our emphasis was more on technique.... It was like going back to the basics that gave me success in the very beginning.''
Blair has announced her intention to retire following the 1995 World Championships in February. The event will be held in Milwaukee, where she currently lives and trains. ``I'm going to give the Blair Bunch one more excuse for a family reunion,'' she says.
The fun-loving group of supporters who root for Blair began in 1984 in Sarajevo with just three fans: Blair's mother and two sisters. By the Calgary Olympics in 1988, around 25 family members and friends joined to create the Blair Bunch. Last winter in Norway, more than 60 showed up for Blair's final Olympics. ``The amount of time I was racing totaled less than six minutes,'' Blair says. ``But they paid all that money to be there.''
Eleanor Blair, Bonnie's mother, stole the hearts of many American viewers. ``Sometimes, I think she was on TV more than I was,'' Blair says. ``She was on before my race, during my race, and after my race. People come up to me to say congratulations and ask: `How are you doing since the Olympics - but more important, how's your mom?' ''
After her retirement, Blair says she hopes to ``give back to the sport of speed skating'' through coaching and other leadership roles. But for now, she's looking forward to that final competition in Milwaukee. ``I'm not ready to be a spectator yet,'' Blair says.