Remembering a brush with greatness

Just to drop a name — Bonnie Blair — like I may occasionally do in Taking Liberty as I occasionally look in the rear-view mirror with a fond recall of nearly 40 years of privileged pecking away in this vocation.

In the fall of 1987, around Thanksgiving time, Butte workers feverishly tried to finish, at least enough for proficient usage, the latest crowning jewel for The Mining City. The U.S. High Altitude Sports Center was placed just off Continental Drive and in the shadows of the East Ridge. Homestake Pass wound its way through the spires in its ascent of the Rockies, lending warning on snowy days to the travelers sometimes skidding down the incline into Butte.

Visitors were expected and we expected to welcome them. Many were dignitaries and as much foreign and domestic press as likely to ever crowd a Montana locale were about to arrive. The trickle had actually begun.

A World Cup speedskating event was to open the Olympic-caliber track and it was also important to the sport in that the 1988 Winter Olympics, to be held in Calgary, were less than three months away on the calendar. So, anyone who was anyone in the competition or hierarchy would be there. Butte was the home of the Montana Amateur Speed Skating Association, and was the only community west of the Mississippi River to consistently field an annual program in the sport. Its own speedskating history was rich, as rich as any in America. The latest Olympian from town was Dave Silk and he could be found about any time of the day at the track during those frantic times preceding that initial Butte World Cup meet.

Silk was on the U.S. World Cup Team and so he practiced. When he wasn’t practicing, he was grabbing tools and helping workers complete as much as could be done to the brand-new center before the big meet.

Because the Olympics were to be in Calgary, the top teams would be in the meet and some would stay to practice until flying on to Calgary. Others scurried in and out, depending on training schedules.

The press grumbled a lot and, I suppose, the press often does. Deadlines pressure the performances and time always evaporates way too rapidly. A walk through the media trailer realized the startling revelation that foreign languages march across computer screens, too.

Word was circulating that Bonnie wouldn’t cooperate.  She was in town and was practicing and if she wasn’t the best woman speedskater in the world, then East German flash Karin Kania was. Kania was the much-decorated veteran star and Blair was on the U.S. team for the 1984 Winter Games In Sarajevo, in what was then Yugoslavia. She had not yet medaled.

However, she was a major U.S. hope for the nearing 1988 Olympics.  A prestigious national sports magazine, according to the story passed along, wanted to publish a major spread on Blair and dispatched a photographer to Butte to produce the accompanying art.

It sounded good, like a nice thing for The Mining City.

However, Bonnie balked. So did the U.S. High Altitude Sports Center management and Butte officials. It seems as though the big-time photog concocted an idea in which he would hire someone to drive him around the oval in a snowmobile, keeping pace with Blair on one of her skate sprints. The photographer planned to shoot pictures all the way.

She didn’t want the noise and intrusion distraction, it seemed. Plus, the Butte folks boiled over a bit when it was learned the snowmobile tracks would most certainly tear the refrigeration plumbing from beneath the oval ice, which would probably not only force cancellation of the meet, but also ruin the facility.

The photographer was incensed , so said the trackside grapevine. A little ol’ World Cup and destruction of a new Olympic training facility seemed a small price to pay in return for him getting the shot he wanted.

At least two local news photographers found the proposal hilarious. Other folks were just miffed.

So, it circulated that Bonnie wasn’t being cooperative, was prima donna-ing it. Such was an ill-deserved charge spread by international media wanting immediate access to her thoughts and plans.

Because of what was said and likely enhanced, it was with some trepidation then that I considered hunting down a post-race interview with Blair after she won one of her races on the U.S. High Altitude Sports Center’s opening weekend. Seeing her seemingly reject similar requests by other reporters deepened my doubts of landing that post-race interview. Asking though, comes with the territory.

She wasn’t hostile at all, but she didn’t smile, either.

“I have to skate my cool-down laps,” she said. “Maybe, after that.”

So, I waited, occasionally looking out at the track to see if she was still slowly skating laps on the outside rim around the racing lanes. Finally, I spotted her walking, still on skates, across the infield of the oval and headed for the warming hut.

I approached her again. Blair stopped and looked at a watch.

“This is when I have to eat my soup,” she said.

It seemed like she was denying me the interview so I told her thanks for taking the time to respond, and started  to walk away.

“If you don’t mind me eating my soup, while we talk,” she said, “I’ll do the interview.”

I realized then that Bonnie was not at all rude. She was disciplined. She kept a rigid schedule and did so religiously because she was a world-class athlete in training for historical achievements in her chosen sport. She was driven. She could not afford to be on somebody else’s schedule.

So, we walked together into the warming hut where she grabbed a Styrofoam container of, I believe, chicken noodle soup. She sat on a long wooden bench that was set against a wall. I sat on a metal folding chair about halfway across the room and next to an adjoining room. Nobody else was in the room.

Unintentionally, I’d not only gotten an interview with America’s rising star  in winter sports, but it was an exclusive one. She was cordial as she replied to questions. She looked at her watch again, announced what was next in her demanding routine and the conversation was over.

Blair went on to win a Gold Medal and a Bronze  in the Calgary Olympics, two Golds in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France,  and another two Golds in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. She retired in 1995.

Blair resided in Butte for a time while attending Montana Tech and working out at the High Altitude Sports Center.

Another personal anecdote on the subject involves Mike Crowe and his family. Crowe coached the U.S. Olympic Team in those days and was the Canadian coach in the 2010 Games. My son, Matt, and the Crowe’s son, Mike, were schoolmates and sometimes played together after school. In the early 1990s, they dropped Matt off at our house after such a day and I asked him what they did playing at the Crowe house and who was there.

“We ate spaghetti and played basketball,” he said. “Mike’s brother (also named Matt) was there and played basketball, too.”

Wondering if there was, perhaps, another kid from school there, making for evenly numbered teams in driveway basketball, I inquired if he, Mike and Mike’s brother were the only ones playing basketball.

“No, there was some girl there, too, playing with us,” my son said. “She was pretty good, too. I think she’s a speedskater or something.

“Her name was Bonnie.”