DH: Hi guys, welcome to Keep On Pushing radio. I am your host, Devon Harris. You know what we do here! We like to share ideas and insights that are going to challenge and inspire you to live your best life
So hey, man, if that’s something you’re interested in, you know you’re in the right place. So, welcome again to keep on pushing radio. I have had the Good Fortune of meeting some really cool people over the years and our guest today definitely ranks among them. In fact, I would say that she is one of my favorite Superstars. She is regarded as the best speed skater of her era if not of all time. She has 11 World Cup titles, she’s only the third winter athlete to ever receive the Sullivan award and the first female athlete actually to receive the Oscar Matheson award.
She’s a four-time Olympian starting out in 1984 in Sarajevo and competing all the way up to Lillehammer in 1994 and during those four Olympic campaigns she walked away with 6 medals, 5 golds and a bronze…. just because. Of course, she has been inducted into numerous Halsl of Fame. The US Olympic Hall of Fame, Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame, Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. And since her time on the ice, she has worked as a company spokesperson, motivational keynote speaker, been very involved at various levels in speed skating and of course, she is a wife and a mother.
Some of her fans know her as Bonnie Blur, I call her Bonnie Blair. And it is such an honor to be able to welcome Bonnie to keep on pushing. Bonnie, good to have you.
BB: Thanks Devon. Nice to be here. Thanks for that nice introduction.
DH: Oh, well, I’m telling the truth and that’s only part of it actually, but it’s great to have you. The last time I saw you was many years ago in Sochi. How have you been since, what you’ve been up to?
BB: Life is good. As you were going through talking about my accolades at the very end I was going to yell, “And I’m a mom!” You got that one! I think that’s the biggest cap that I wear and obviously I’m very appreciative of the things that came before me and working hard to get there or whatever. I think these days I’m most proud of being a mom and hoping to steer my kids in the right direction. About a month ago, we’re kind of winding down both my son and my daughter’s athletic seasons and I just kind of sat back and I’m like, I’m just in a really good place.
My kids are doing well, they’re thriving, they’re excited for what they’re doing and I’m along for the ride and watching and it’s just been a lot of fun.
DH: That’s awesome. Because I think it’s really important, we work hard to achieve but when we become parents that really becomes our focus. I so feel you on that Bonnie, awesome.
BB: I was also thinking that now I know more of what my parents went through.
DH: I was actually thinking that as you were speaking.
BB: It really does kind of come full circle and maybe I understand it to another degree having been there and done that. My parents didn’t have that ability. But just sitting in the stands and you’ve got no control. And you want to help things along but you can’t so I think that part of it I definitely have a better grasp for as well.
DH: I think that’s a parent instinct as well to always want to help in every which way that we can but sometimes you just have to let them fly, and I agree. As I think about my own kids and as they are getting older and going off to find their way and I think back to when I was that age and felt I was all grown and knew it all and wondered why my parents were worried about me. I have to take solace in that because I was there once and it’s their turn now.
BB: Once you’re a parent, you’re always a parent so I think you’re going to worry no matter what the age is, right?
DH: That’s true. That’s the circle of life. So, you were born here in New York where I am, but then you move to Champaign, Illinois as a toddler. You’re the youngest of six?
BB: Correct. I probably really shouldn’t be here. I may be one of those oops babies.
DH: Well, you know sometimes surprises are the best ones, aren’t they?
BB: Well, and I think it definitely helped keep my parents young because they had to run around after this kid that they thought they were long done with having kids.
DH: What what’s a gap between sibling number five?
BB: Eight years and then there was 22 between me and the oldest so my two probably almost third even, older siblings could have been my parents. I grew up with a lot of parents too. Really probably more than just one set.
DH: Absolutely. So, everybody skated and so they kind of threw you on skates at 2 years old?
BB: Yes. I guess the story goes that they didn’t even have skates small enough to fit me so they said they just left my shoes on and put the skates on over them. So, that’s kind of what the story goes and my recollection is just remembering loving to skate, loving to go to the rink, loving to go to the competition. I don’t remember learning, one of my biggest memories that I kind of have is growing up more so in Illinois….. I lived in New York for like three months before my dad got transferred and in Illinois when we skated against other teams in Illinois, you always had a constant number on your back. So as you went over the cross the finish line the judges that were on the side, which my mom periodically filled in on – my dad was a timer on the finish line……
But our numbers on our back would help them to say who got 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Nowadays it’s done electronically or whatever but my number on my back growing up was always five. So, when I turned five and the number of my back was five, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. So, obviously that was my lucky number and then I wound up winning five gold medals. So there is literally something to all of that. But my earliest memory is really being five and you know, oh my number on my back is five and I’m five but I don’t remember learning. I just remember the love of going to the rink and being excited to go to the practices and when the season would ramp up again, that that’s my earliest recollection.
DH: So, it seems that your parents, your dad especially, was really involved with you and your siblings skating. I read or watched a video where he was at a competition when you were being born.
BB: Yes. Well because he was with the rest of the kids. Back then parents really…..your spouse weren’t allowed in the delivery room anyway and I guess he figured well; she’s already been down this road five other times. That’s how my brothers and sisters knew whether I was a boy or a girl, they announced it over the loudspeaker.
DH: That’s pretty cool. So, you started racing early I think at four but success didn’t come immediately for you, didn’t win your first event until you were seven?
BB: Yes, well and if that’s the case, I’m guessing your information is better than mine. I don’t know but I do know growing up and when I talk about those competitions that we had in Illinois, and then sometimes it would go to other states; you’re always like in a two-year age bracket. So, either one year you’re going to be younger and the other you’re going to be older and I definitely had success along the way through those early years and winning competitions. We had a basement full of trophies and I was excited when I got to go add my trophies to the rest of my siblings area. But there was also a point in time in there probably,12 or 13 when your body is growing and changing and my legs weren’t catching up with the rest of me. And so, I really had what I would call a clumsy season and I remember being so disheartened with the lack of success that I was having knowing what I had had before
And I remember people coming up to me and going, you know, you’re just growing and your legs will catch up to you and be patient and I remember my mom saying, “Do you want to stop? And it was kind of like “well, no, I don’t want to stop but I don’t like this getting beat stuff.” I’m obviously glad that I stuck with it but I think I listened to those other adults around me that said, you know, your body’s changing, you’re going to catch up with it and then you’re going to be okay. So, I’m glad I was patient enough to wait and go, “Okay! I’m going to keep doing this thing called speed skating.”
DH: I think about that and two things, the world gets to know the great Bonnie Blair now, but if you had a different mindset, if you had different people in your life perhaps you will not have persevered through those rough years when you weren’t winning and we never would have seen your greatness.
BB: That’s a for sure fact, but there’s definitely competition in the Blair blood because even my sister Mary, she’s like you get in the car “Click”- she wants to get her seat belt click before everybody else. We’re going to play cards until she wins so at midnight you let her win so you can go to bed. I wouldn’t say it was a bad sense, it was a fun sense of competition. How can we make something competitive out of getting in a car, “click.”?
Who gets shot gun ? Whoever yelled it first! Like all those different things and those things bring a great smile to my face because my sister Mary has passed.
But I think there was a lot of stuff instilled in us to be competitive but not take it like overboard and it drive you insane. It was a fun competitiveness that we had amongst our family that then carries on over into your athletic and endeavors, but also just in everyday life of wanting to try to be successful.
DH: You actually had good role models as well because four of your siblings went on to become national champions?
BB: Yes. My oldest brother was really away at Prep School when they started speed skating so he didn’t have that opportunity. But all the other ones were either National or North American Champions. So, they paved the way but when they got to the point where they needed to go on to college they did that. I’m that one that I kind of kept what-iffing myself and I wish I could go back and ask my parents about why they didn’t force that part on me to go to college. I’m really only thinking of this as we speak right now. “Were there so many people that maybe came up to them and said she’s got potential, let her keep skating, there’s always school to be had”. I don’t know the answer to that but I’m glad they didn’t force that on me. Now you’re done with high school you have to go to college and this is what you have to do.
I’m lucky that they didn’t force that subject but you definitely had me questioning. I might have to go back and ask my older sisters if they know the answer to that question.
DH: I’m glad I was able to help with that. You mentioned two things; one was the influence of others on you. And two, you mentioned how as a teenager your body started changing and you struggle through that. Can you speak to that a little bit Bonnie? Because there’s so many young girls, especially whether they’re athletes are not who struggle with body image issues and some of them are shamed for it.
BB: I guess it wasn’t necessarily anybody issues, to me it was you know, I’ll be skating well and I’d fall and I think it would like I referenced it earlier, it was at a clumsy stage. It was kind of like, why aren’t my legs doing what my mind wants to do? There wasn’t that connectivity, I guess. I remember it happened in my hometown. It was one of the last competitions before nationals and it came down to the very last race and as the state of Illinois, we would send a certain amount of girls or in that age group Nationals. And like, you know one or the two of the races before I had fallen and it literally came down to the very last race of whether I was going to have enough points to put me in that category to let me go to Nationals and luckily I didn’t fall that race – I think I won it.
But it was one of those things where it came down to the last race of the regular season before I realized I was going to be able to go to Nationals and it was really frustrating. But like I said, I just kind of feel like I was patient with it. I had good people around me encouraging me saying, just wait. And that was what helped me along the way to get me through that rough stage and that’s not to say I didn’t have other rough stages throughout my career. There were definitely challenges, one season in particular, in fact, the whole season I’m like once again, what’s going on with my legs? Why aren’t they going where my head is? And I think there was a little bit of overtraining and some different things that went on that my body didn’t like and it was telling me.
So, I think when things aren’t going the way you want them to, I think a couple things. Number one, take a step back and look at the big picture. What’s going on here? Why are maybe some of these happening? And I think the other thing of what I would try to do is focus on the things that actually are going right. So, that one season in ‘93 when the clock wasn’t reading numbers I wanted it to……. I would try to focus on the things that were going correctly and hopefully gradually some of those things that I was struggling with that the part of my technique here or there wasn’t going the way I wanted it to would gradually get better.
So, I think sometimes if you get so caught up on the things that aren’t going right, they tend to snowball on you and run out of control and then you’re really in trouble. But just trying to focus on those good positive things and take those in. And like I said, take a step back and analyze what’s going on, try to figure out the things of maybe why it’s not going the way you want to and gradually try to change those to try to get things back on top again.
DH: That’s great advice, Bonnie. I think that applies to every single area of our lives for sure. So, tell me…. I know you did a number of other sports when you’re growing up. What was it about speed skating that just caused you to gravitate to?
BB: I played softball growing up, I ran track in high school, there was some soccer. Soccer isn’t what it was today, I wounded up being like a co-ed team where I was the only “co” but I guess there probably weren’t as many opportunities and especially in my sister’s era for athletics. So, it was nice to be in something that had dimension to it where there were practices, there were local competitions, they were Statewide, it went National. And like I said, my siblings were in it before me so, you know kind of growing up I didn’t know anything different. But yes, I tried the other things but when it came time for Speed skating season boy, I was ready.
Like when do we start? Like, when’s it coming? I want to go! So, I think maybe competing within yourself. Short track maybe is a little bit different because I did race short track. But for the most part you have the control but in a team sport you necessarily don’t have that control so I guess maybe that was one of the things maybe that I grabbed onto. I did do something, you know, like playing the softball or the soccer that were more team orientated, but maybe it was deep down inside I liked having that control where either I’m going to make my next destination good or not it’s all up to me.
And then coaches come into play there, yes, but ultimately, it’s up to me. And especially having a clock that you race against, that doesn’t lie so it’s not judgmental. My daughter was in gymnastics and I’m sitting in the stands and I’m like, I don’t get this sport. What did they see that I didn’t see and vice versa, so I was glad to have the clock at the end of the straightaway. It doesn’t lie.
DH: It tells you what you did.
BB: Yes. It tells me either I’m good or I’m not then it’s back up to me again.
DH: Got you. So, you mentioned that your parents obviously did not push you towards College perhaps as they did with your siblings. When did the Olympics come on your radar?
BB: I specifically remember being in my TV room watching Eric Heiden and Miracle on Ice. So the ‘80 Games are what I looked at and thought they are really kind of cool but back then I didn’t skate …….Well, I take that back. I probably knew little bit about the Olympics prior to but prior to the 1980 Olympic trials, I had never skated what we call back then Olympic-Style skating. I had always done what we referred to as short track, we called it “indoor” and that other style was called, “Olympic style.” Then there was outdoor which is like short track on the track that I’m on but you have a group of skaters racing together. So now it’s differentiated short track/long track you could say I was probably more of a short track pack style racer.
The weekend before the 1980 Olympic trials somebody says to me, “why don’t you try this?” And I’m like, “well, I’ve never done that before.” And they wore the outfits with the hoods and we just wore tights and a jersey and somebody lent me their racing suit. And there was a qualifying time in order to able to just skate in the Olympic trials and I knew what that was in my mind. I was the very last pair but my pair didn’t show up for some odd reason. I’m like, “oh my God! What am I doing here all by myself, am I going to remember to switch lanes on the back stretch?” All these different things are going through my head but as I came around with about 50 meters to go, I knew that time in my head of what I had to beat.
The clock was at the end of the straightaway. I actually looked up and saw it and I kind of just put my head down and I barrelled down and like boom! I’m like, “I get skating Olympic trials!” And I’m like, “oh my gosh!” So, then I went back the next weekend and raced in Olympic trials and actually coincidentally got paired with Leah Polis Muller who went on to win a silver medal in Lake Placid. My first hundred meters was so fast that it freaked her out a little bit and made her go faster, and she set a track record.
And she came up to me afterwards and said, “You’re the reason I skated a track record.” And I was kind of like, “What?” Then she goes on and wins the silver medal so that was kind of my first instance of getting into that and it was all because some of my other pack style friends were like, why don’t you try this.
DH: How old were you then, Bonnie?
BB: I think 16, right around in there.
DH: So, I know you made the US team as a teenager while you’re still in high school. How did you balance training and focusing on your races and so on with high school studies?
BB: At the time and being a teenager – and you kind of alluded to it a little bit earlier about, your parents and they think they know it all and this and that. It would have been my senior year, I guess it was….. a lot of the other skaters were going over to Europe to get on ice early, which was typically what they did every year. Now that we have the indoor facilities you don’t have to do that but before that there was one track in Germany that always opened up early and so everybody else was doing it. So, I remember in the summer I was at a training camp at the training center in Colorado Springs and I told my coaches I’m like, yes, I asked my parents and they said no, but maybe if you talk to them.
So, the coach gets on the phone and talks to my parents and they’re like, “nope, she needs to finish high school. She needs to be here, she needs to finish High School, etc.” I look back at that time and at the time I was like, well, everybody else is doing it so why can’t I? But I think that was probably one of the best things my parents ever did for me because I definitely over the course of my skating career……..after watching kids that grew up with my kids and trying to get them on the fast track somewhere; they burn out, they’re done already, they’re not still in it. And so, by my parents’ kind of holding me back and making sure I finished high school before I started traveling and doing all that.
They really kind of kept me a little bit more grounded but made sure I stayed on that right path. And because of that, years later, I still had that desire and that “want to” to be there and so I didn’t have too much too soon that took me out of it at an earlier age.
DH: Burn you out too soon, yes. So, in 1980 is kind of when the Olympics in terms of skating came on your radar. When did you go, hmmn, this could be a goal of mine to compete?
BB: The ‘84 games I made that team, you know, and I think kind of at that ‘80 Olympic trials I was like, oh well, maybe I could make it. I want to be eight that year at our Olympic trials and they took five with doing three races so that was my like, oh, maybe I could go to the Olympics, that would be kind of cool. Never had been on my radar before that weekend, I skated, this was fun, I enjoy this but never like, oh God, I could go to the Olympics.
DH: Your dad kind of felt that you could go to the Olympics though?
BB: Yes. It was right about that time or right after. My high school was just a couple blocks from where my dad worked. So, a couple times I’d go over there and get a ride home and I remember one time him introducing me to a new co-worker of his. And my dad was a man of very few words, not like me. We could drive up and back to Chicago and he could maybe say like three sentences. So, he was kind of one of these guys though that when he said something, he meant it, when he said something you heard it. And so, he’s like, “oh, this is a new co-worker of mine” and he’s like, “this is my daughter Bonnie and she’s going to be in the Olympics” and I just kind of like, “What in the world is he talking about?”
So, it kind of went in one ear and out the other because I’m like, oh, he’s like a parent trying to embarrass you. It’s also still kind of weird too because like I said, him being a man of very few words, he wasn’t that type of a parent to do that. This kind of goes back to maybe what we were talking about earlier, obviously either he saw something or somebody else saw something and they told him whatever that was but he really believed I was going to go to the Olympics. I skated pack style, I didn’t do what they did in the Olympic so what’s he talking about? So, as ‘80 came around and I skated well in those Olympic trials, I thought, “well, maybe I could go to the Olympics.”
Then I get to ‘84 and I placed 8th and now the wheels are turning a little bit more. I’m 8th in the world. I feel like I won I’m like, hey, this is great! I was dedicated to the sport in ‘84 but after that I took that to another level.
DH: Let me ask you this quick. So, your godmother Kathy Priestner, when did she become your coach? And she herself was an accomplished skater and a silver medalist in ‘76. So, you just had skating royalty around you all the way, didn’t you?
BB: Yes. I was pretty lucky, Kathy and her husband at that time; he had a job at the University of Illinois so Kathy knew there was a speed skating Club there. So, she’s like, you know, maybe I could go and help out at this club. I think, her husband was busy working so what am I going to do? I’m a Canadian and I’m here in America, what can I do? And so she came to one of our practices and I can’t remember exactly how it all came together but she came and started helping out with our club and then that’s when I started – I was kind of on my upswing so she was one of those people that was with me that first Olympic Style Skating that I skated and wounded up being able to qualify for Olympic trials.
And so, after that I started going to the rink before school a couple days a week and they said I broke in. No, I had my own key. They would Zamboni the ice the night before. I know where to turn the lights on so I’d go in and turn the lights on. We do a quick workout and by then the other workers were coming in by the time I was done and I was out of there. So, she really also kind of came into my life at a really good time because she was the one that when I was “like oh God, I’m going to forget to cross over on the back stretch” and she’s like, “No, you won’t and I’ll be on the backstretch and I’ll help to remind you.”
So, she gave me a little you know, how do you warm up for this; all the little tricks and tools that you need to get ready for a race like that, which was you know, yes, you’re still speed skating, but it was different when you do it pack style versus when you do it on your own.
DH: So, pack style is what we now call short track?
DH: So, you continued racing in that discipline and even became the World Champion in 86, was it?
BB: In 1986, yes, you did your homework.
DH: Yes. So, when did the short track become an Olympic sport?
BB: So, 1988 it became a demonstration Sport and so when I won in ‘86, I skated really well at the world championships for long track but then I was able to skate the short track that year and then went on to win the World Championships. I don’t know if by then they had decided it would be a demonstration sport or not but I don’t think it had until maybe the next year. After I won in ‘86, I was kind of like okay, I won this but I want to go to the Olympics and so I really wanted to focus and concentrate on that. So, after I won in ‘86, I’m like, okay, I’m done with short track. I’m just going to focus on the long track because it wasn’t in the games.
DH: Yes, I was wondering about that but obviously it makes sense. If you want to compete in the Olympics and short track isn’t an Olympic sport then long track it is then.
DH: So, you go to Sarajevo and you finished 8th, you feel like you’ve won 10 gold medals because it was such an amazing experience and result based on where you were but then you kind of took it to another level heading to Calgary. What did you think in your mind caused that shift and what are some of the things that you did in order to raise your game?
BB: I just kind of took the training to another level. I graduated high school ‘82 and so I probably wasn’t quite as dedicated to the sport. I was a little bit but I wasn’t doing it 24/7. If my friends wanted to go to a movie I’d go and maybe I’ll do that workout later and I go to a movie with them so I wasn’t as dedicated as I could have been. And after ‘84 and being at the Olympics and having my eyes wide open and, I thought if I got anywhere near 10th, that would be great. So, to be placed 8th was like, oh my God! That was all I needed. And that was enough to make me go, okay, what do I do? Where do we go from here?
I’m not going to the movie anymore or I’m going to go when I’m done with my workout. That’s more of what I did. I started Living more where my coaches lived because prior to that if you didn’t live where your coach lived, they’d send you a training program in the mail. So, it’s really up to you to do it because you’re really on your own for everything and so yes, there were times where you would be together at training camps but it wasn’t a year-round situation. So, I started making some of those moves and living in different areas where I’d be around other athlete. So, I wasn’t really just doing the workouts but I think getting pushed and kind of competing within those workouts at the same time as well.
DH: So, what you’re saying to me is that whether you want to compete in the Olympics as a skater or you want to be a top salesperson or top student you have to raise your level of commitment because when you do it your actions change as well?
BB: For sure. My coach at one point said, “You finally have become a student of the sport,” And I’m like, well, exactly what do you mean by that? And he’s like, “You want to get good grades you have to study. You want to get good results out on the ice you have to put the work in.” So, like I said, I was kind of more of a fun student then I got to be the dedicate student.
DH: So, you’re heading off to Calgary, the Olympics before in Sarajevo ’84, the U.S you hadn’t won a medal, you finished 8th and you were on top of the world. But now you’re having some success and you are seen as a medal contender. Did you feel pressure or the need to bring home a medal for the U.S and the pressure of the expectations that you were now a contender and that you could actually take home a medal?
BB: Yes. There were different things that went on that winter leading up to ‘88 and yes, I knew that I was a medal Contender. I think I had set the world record before that but then an East German had reset it after that.
DH: Christina Rothenberger.
BB: Yes. So, I knew a medal was in my grasp and not only one but two. I knew I could be competitive for third spot in the One thousand meters as well. But going into that, it was a learning experience because now all of a sudden we’re like a few months away from the Olympics and Sports Illustrated is here and Time Magazine and Life magazine and all these news venues are coming and want to do interviews and want to take pictures. And when they say one more lap on a 400-meter track after I’ve already been training was…… at one point a guy from Sports Illustrated had come and I think part of it had been I think I had already been interviewed three times by three different people from Sports Illustrated.
People would come to take my picture almost the exact same amount of times and I like had it up to here. It was a hard training block and I was exhausted and I kind of blew up at the guy, and I did go back and I apologized. And first of all, that’s not my personality but I mean, this is a hard training block and this is stuff I’ve never done before. Like, where were these people last year for the World Championships?
DH: It’s very distracting.
BB: Yes, they didn’t care about the World Championships from the year before but it’s the Olympic Games. We’re typically a sport that’s looked at every four years and we’re expected to perform and I know that nobody had done it in 84 and now you’ve got myself, Dan Jansen, Nick Thomas had been pretty successful, Erick Flame.There were a handful of us but it was exhausting and I can’t remember exactly who helped me kind of figure it out. But I’m like, okay, rules: I’m only going to take pictures in my racing suits on Thursdays because that’s what I’m in my racing suit. You want that? Fine, I’ll give you a starts or positions, you can get whatever you want during practice, but I’m not going to keep doing laps afterwards.
I kind of made my coach be the bad guy, I’m like, we’re implementing this and this is what’s going to happen. If we’re going to try to do interviews, let’s knock them all out on a Monday where we don’t have this hard of a training schedule. So, I really kind of had to teach myself in a lot of that with all that hubbub leading up to the Olympics. So yes, there was the pressure of that however, I didn’t take that pressure as if I don’t win, you’re going to disappoint all the Americans. To me it was like I’m still going to go out and do what I need to do because it’s for me first. If I can’t satisfy myself first, I can’t satisfy my family, my Sport and then what’s the rest of America, right? So, I have to take care of me first and if I go out and I skated a great race and it’s not metal worthy then you know, but in the 1500 meters in Calgary I was fourth and I was ecstatic.
That was a really good race for me but the Americans look at it as, you’re fourth and you didn’t get a medal.
DH: Important lesson there, Bonnie because I think all of us struggle with living up to success as is defined by the world and by others. And you write, a fourth-place, people see that as a failure, but I know that was your best performance in the 1500 ever at that time and so that was tremendous success for you. People looking on would go, oh, no, that was a failure, she didn’t win a medal.
BB: That was fourth, you might as well have been last.
DH: Yes. It’s really important that our listeners and viewers walk away from this recognizing that you know what, as you say, you have to take care of you first. You have to define success for yourself and then strive to achieve that.
45:55 BB: Part of ‘88 too is the whole tragedy of Dan Jansen losing his sister. He raced earlier in the Olympics and I raced later but you know, that was something that really affected our whole team because even though we’re an individual sport and there’s boys and there’s girls…. we’re a team and we trained together. DJ’s like my brother so when something like that happens to one of your closest teammates you feel that and still it wasn’t like, oh, I had to win for DJ because he fell on both his races. I didn’t feel that either, I have to do it for me first. But once I did that and I cross the finish line and I set a world record and there were so many people that you’re like, oh my God, I can kind of share this with DJ. I know that it wasn’t his medal, but I know that we’re close enough that to be able to share in somebody success is pretty special and I know he feels that.
DH: I was about to say I’ve seen interviews with him where he spoke about how special it was for you to – that ranks up there in terms of his Olympic memory, you winning that medal.
BB: Yes. So, now we go back to Kathy who is in Champaign, who was my coach and now she is running the rink in Calgary. So, she was one of the first people like, I’m still on the ice on the back stretch hugging her, she is giving me pats on the back….. like it comes full circle, right? There was so many people that were a part of it but if I’m going to the starting line and I’m thinking of DJ and him losing his sister or I’m thinking of, you know, my dad at that point was battling cancer. He had just finished radiation or am I thinking of the coaches I had had before then I’m going to the starting line for the wrong reason.
I need to go to the starting line for me and I’m pretty good like tunnel vision and I don’t remember a lot of even what’s going on. My coach came up to me on the back stretch prior to going to the starting line and Christina Rothenberger had just set the world record two pairs before me. So, in order for me to win I need to go faster than I’ve ever run and I need to set a world record.
DH: And this is the girl who had taken your world record away?
BB: Yes, but I knew in my mind what I had done the week before in training was fast enough to beat that time. And he’s has the piece of paper and he’s calculating and I just looked at him and I’m like, I know and I skated away from him because I could tell he was so nervous and I’m like, I don’t need that. Like get away from me, let me just get in my own zone where I’m good, I got this. I mean not that yes; I have this but I felt confident enough in what I was doing that his nervousness was going to get me nervous and that’s not what I want. And it’s not like I got there going, I got this because I know I still needed to do it but I had the confidence in myself that if I skated the way I knew I could skate I could win.
DH: Right. And so, you left those blocks like a bullet, 2 hundredth of a second ahead of Christina and that was in the end…
BB: Well, it was she always beat me down the hunter so I beat her down the hundred.
DH: That’s awesome. So, you leave Calgary on a high with two medals, a gold and a bronze and your dad who as you just mentioned just got through his chemotherapy radiation for his cancer diagnosis saw you. The man who believed from the beginning that you could become an Olympic champion.
BB: And it was probably like two hours or thereabout……. there’s a medal ceremony, there’s interviews, there’s drug testing and all this going on…. that I actually got to be face-to-face with my family and the smile on my dad’s face was awesome. He didn’t need to say anything, I’m sure he probably did but his smile said it all.
DH: Yes, and Bonnie, you lost him the year after that?
BB: Yes. We lost him of all days, Christmas day in 1989.
DH: So, you know that’s my birthday too.
BB: There you go!
DH: That’s something, I read that I’m like, wow! He passed away on my birthday. So, how did that impact your skating afterwards?
BB: I don’t think a ton, as far as what I would do on a daily basis or whatever, but when I got to Albertville and I won that first race, the 500m, I dedicated that medal in his memory because it was that guy that said that one sentence that said, “My daughter’s going to be in the Olympics and she’s going to win a medal.” It’s like, how did he know that? Being in the Olympics is one thing, winning a metal is a whole different ball of wax. So, he’s that guy that put that seed in my head that of the guy that hardly said anything so that was just special for me to be able to honor his memory and the seed that he planted in me.
DH: You just mentioned that you repeated in Albertville, which was unprecedented and then you repeat it again in Lillehammer, the only person to have done that.
BB: Well, I was also lucky enough to get that 2-year little jump too.
DH: Like I said, it’s always better to be lucky than great, right?
BB: Exactly. However, the year after that I won the World Championship and set another world record so that would have been ‘95 so I would have only been one-year way from 96, I could have done it again.
DH: So, look you were on top of your sport for many years, Bonnie. When I was growing up in high school, my idol was Sebastian Coe 800 meter runner. I’m Jamaican, but that’s what I ran because in Jamaica everybody sprints fast, except me and you have to win something. And I remember reading a book where he said, “It’s really hard to get to the top, it’s twice as hard to stay there.” So, you’re at the top for a really long time. How where you able to motivate yourself and challenge yourself to remain at the top?
BB: Well, I think I definitely had peaks and valleys I just peaked at the Olympic Games which was good. And not to say I didn’t peak at other times but I was able to have some of those really great seasons then. One of my best seasons ever was ‘95 the year after the Olympic Games, but I think you know, and this is one thing that we really instill in our kids to this day, you’ve got to have brakes. I see some kids that have grown up with my kids, they might be in one sport or they might be in two but they go from one season to the next and there’s never time off.
You have to have time off, and I think that’s one thing that we were always pretty good about doing is taking some time away……after the season a good like six to eight weeks where you’re not thinking skating, you’re not doing skating training and for a while there you just don’t do anything. And then maybe as you kind of get closer to that time where you’re going to start training, you do something that’s fun. Whether it’s play tennis, go for a hike or do something that’s not related to training but you’re still active. And then so after the ‘88 Games also, I went back to school and did some schooling in Butte, Montana so that year I only really probably took part in the three international competitions.
But when I did that, oh my God, I was like, “I missed it.” So, having that one season kind of away, but I only had a couple of competitions to really be there and be with it, that led me to know that I didn’t want to take another…… because I was still training but I probably wasn’t training as hard as I could have. And so, I had kind of taken a little bit of a step back because I was going to school so I wanted school to be my forefront but keep the training aspect there. And I think over the course of the years when you’re training a lot of stuff can kind of carry over so. I think it could carry over one year. Had I done it two years; I don’t think I would have seen the results that I did in those three competitions that I was in.
There were times where things were a little cyclical for me, but then I knew I wanted it and I knew that I didn’t want to take another year like that. Then the other thing I think, after the ’92 Olympics, I realized that some people do take a year like that after the Olympics, but when they do that sometimes they might go totally away. I didn’t go totally away. They really take a year off and they can never come back to – very seldom have I seen it….they come back and have been the athlete that they once were. And the other thing that I kind of think of is, sometimes if other people do that and you train really hard that year after, you can like leap over.
DH: Yes. Leap way ahead of them, absolutely. Let’s talk about limitations for a bit, Bonnie because you are five fivish, somewhere around 125, 130, much smaller than the average skater, but that’s the toolbox that that the good Lord gave you, right? And a lot of people would look at that as a limitation to you succeeding in the sport, but obviously you didn’t see that way. What advice would you have for a salesperson or a CEO, whoever who maybe dealing with what other people see as limitations. How do they get past those to compete at a high level?
BB: I think you have to then find those different tools that you can be good at. So, for instance maybe some of my counterparts were bigger and stronger than I was but I relied on my technique. And my technique was better than theirs was so I think you just have to look at the whole picture and say, what are my strengths, what can I rely on and build upon those. I’d be in the locker room with some of those East Germans and look at their legs and go, there’s no matter how many weights I lift I’m not going to look like that.
So, I could look at that and go, all right, throw my hands up, I’m done, I’m going to get beat or I can take a step back and go, what do I have? What’s my strengths? What can I do? And how can I be better than them given what I’ve got? There was a Japanese guy Hiroyasu Shimizu, he was maybe 5-5; he’s probably almost 5-4. He is from Japan, went back and forth having the world record with Jeremy Witherspoon from Canada who’s like 6-3. The two of them on the starting line you’re like, oh my God, and they could come across the finish line at the exact same time. So, it’s what you’ve got and what you do with it that helps to make that difference.
Yes, you can be psyched out by people but you have God-given tools that somebody else doesn’t have and vice versa. So, you just have to figure out how to fine-tune those to take them to your best ability.
DH: So, play to your strengths. Let’s speak about barriers because the world is full of barriers and especially the sports world. In sports, the most famous one is Roger Bannister on the four-minute mile and nobody could do it or you’ll just keel over and die, your heart would explode, etc. So, the 39 seconds was a barrier in your sport and you are the first to break that. Can you speak about that a little bit?
BB: Yes. It was after the ‘94 games and I had actually set a track record in Lillehammer. The Olympic record and the world record was still from Calgary in1988, this is 1994. I had set that record when I beat Christina Rothenberger 39:10. I believe I went 39:24 maybe in Lillehammer and so that’s kind of like at low land and Calgary is at altitude which always wins it to be faster. So, I mean that was a really good time and so I knew I was close to the world record there and there’s always a competition, they still have it, I was there with my daughter a couple of weeks ago, in Calgary, at the end of the season they call it the oval finale.
They try to make the ice as fast as they can, it’s designed for athletes to go and set personal best and for me always chasing a clock that’s what it’s always all about. I would always also try to keep track of the different tracks that we skated at and what was my fastest time there because there’s always a track record or whatever. I go back to earlier; I’ve got to beat myself first before I can meet anybody else. So, it’s always challenging me and my times and knowing what I’ve done before. So, like I said, Lillehammer was great and after Lillehammer, we had a couple other World Cups that we had over in Europe. And then I was going to go to the oval finale. I knew I was so close in Lillehammer to getting that world record, but not only did I want to get the world record. I wanted to break that 39 second barrier, I wanted to see 38 seconds on that clock.
So, I go to Calgary, it’s probably about a month and a half after the Olympics, skate the first 500 meters. Now that one becomes my second fastest ever. I think it was like 39:18 or something like that. I didn’t quite feel as good on my skates as I wanted to or as comfortable. They just didn’t feel like they’re gripping very well. I had one more shot the next day, the gun goes off, my split time was faster than the day before and also faster than what I had done in Lillehammer so I knew I was on a good race and come down that homestretch, cross the finish line in 38.99. So, just barely but I got it and you know, there were probably like 200 athletes in the entire competition, men and women of all ages and maybe like a hundred parents or whatever.
There’s literally nobody in the stands, it’s not like it was a World Cup or the Olympic Games but to me it was always challenging the clock, challenging myself and seeing those numbers was magic.
DH: Yes. And then you get to end your sport career at the very top of the leaderboard. One writer said, you “have no more mountains to climb” when you competed in your last event in Milwaukee, right?
BB: Yes. And that was our World Champ so I knew after the Lillehammer Games that the World Sprint Championships was going to be in Milwaukee. Well, this is my home and I knew no matter what I would not be happy being in the stands watching what is the biggest competition for a sprinter in a non-Olympic year in my hometown. So, I knew I was going to skate for one more year during even the ‘94 season no matter what the results were in Lillehammer. I think some people look at that and go, oh, you’re risking not finishing on top but once again, I was in it for the love of the sport and challenging myself and yes, maybe I won’t have the results that I had in Lillehammer, but I have to try.
My heart didn’t want to be in the stands, my heart would want to be out on that ice. And so yes, I skated one more year and I wound up winning all four races, lowered my own world record that year, not in Milwauke but in Calgary a little bit later. So, like I said, in ‘95 was almost one of my best years than they had skate and then and then I left on my own terms. I left when I was ready to go, not because the Olympics are over and you won, you should be done. I didn’t have an injury pushing me out, I left when I felt Bonnie was ready to leave. It wasn’t difficult at the time; it was difficult in the fall. I went out for a run and the smell of the wet leaves, that smell I had smelt in Germany for the last 16 years…. and I went out for a run and I wasn’t thinking anything of it and I’m just like sobbing like I shouldn’t be here I should be in Germany.
And so, it was an emotional time because it was like I still wanted it but I didn’t and I was ready to move on and yes, I definitely went back and forth. A part of it that made it a little bit easier is in ‘96 my husband and I got married and he actually still skated through almost till 2002, well, he skated through 2002 and didn’t make that Olympic team, but he made the ‘98 Games and part of it with him still being in it, I was able to gradually go out of it. And I didn’t have to quit cold turkey because that was like a drug almost, it’s so in your system that it is kind of hard to stop. I remember being at the Olympics doing an interview in ‘98 with Harry Smith and I’m five months pregnant at this time, Dave and I got married and I’m pregnant and in the middle of the interview I just started bawling and yes, it could have been hormones but I’m here and I’m not part of it anymore.
So, it was hard, it’s like you kind of go through withdrawals and you know, I got back from that run and I got over it or whatever, but there were different parts that were emotional for me because it had been such a part of your life. And I’m sure that you felt this too where it’s such a part of your life and to walk away and be done, that’s hard.
DH: I agree with you. I mean, I went through many years and I often say that my worst Olympics were the Salt Lake Olympics because I was at the race thinking there’s no reason I shouldn’t be in this race. There are people in this race that I used to beat, why am I not in this race, right? And yes, you go through this slow withdrawal that takes many years, a couple of Olympic Cycles actually. So, it is what it is, but then when you have a new goal or a new direction it also helps you to move on.
BB: So, yes, I got married, I was pregnant, I had kids and like I said, don’t get me wrong I really did what if myself. I didn’t stop and I didn’t make a comeback or whatever, I did keep going and a lot of people would have been after ‘88 well, you won, you could be done. No, I still like what I’m doing and I’m going to keep going and then we had ‘92 and then that’s when they made the two-year jumped to ‘94 and I’m like, why not? So, like I said, even though I had some of those emotional moments and I would call them more moments. I didn’t get stuck in a rut or anything, I really skated as long as I wanted to and left when I felt comfortable.
And yes, there were times I dearly missed it, but I was still ready to be done. So, I think it kind of has a little bit of both but I do know of those athletes that left and then they want to come back. If you’re thinking that and you thinking at all about a comeback, don’t leave.
DH: That’s a good idea, that’s good advice there. And so then, what’s the message you share as a motivational keynote speaker, Bonnie?
BB: I think a lot of it and I’ve obviously talked a lot about that today is you know, really kind of competing within yourself and setting those personal best and striving for those. And yes, you can get carried away with other people that are around you whether it’s in the business world, whether it’s kids in school or whatever, but you have to start with you first and what’s good for me. We talked about my 1500 meters in Calgary and being fourth but also in Lillehammer in that 1500 meters, I was fourth and that one I just missed a bronze medal by like three one-hundredths of a second. But once again, that was the fastest in that race I had ever gone. It was an American record.
It was a fast as any American had ever gone. I mean, yes, I was fourth but I was on top of the world after that race and I would have been higher up there with a bronze but I had to be proud of what I did. So, I think sometimes people have to look at yes, there’s that ultimate pedestal and I thank God I’ve been there five times, but I know that that’s not the norm. So, you have to look at maybe being 10th, maybe that eighth place, you know, maybe it’s top 20. You have to look at things, put things in perspective, what’s good for me and gradually pick away at those things to keep coming up on that ladder and striving for those little personal best.
It’s nice to have those long-range goals, but the more important goals are the little ones in between that you can keep checking off and keep taking to that next level to get to that ultimate goal. I think too with all that and I’ve kind of talked about this here today too, those people that you surround yourself with are the ones that can help make that success possible. And like I said, success doesn’t always mean first. Success is on a given range of what’s good for you, but surrounding those people that help you get there. I always say it’s like that tire wheel that has all the spokes in it and when all the spokes are their it spins in a perfect fashion. That gives you that recipe to be able to have the success and then my last little bit is I like to talk about risk and I think sometimes people are willing to risk or go out on a limb to be better.
And so, you have to find out what those risks are to make sure you’re challenging yourself, you just don’t want it to be all on one level. Find those things you need to do and then challenge yourself to push you a little bit further.
DH: Absolutely. So, with all those accomplishments and all those accolades, you mentioned that the hats you love to wear the best are that have wife and mom. I forgot your son’s name, he plays hockey?
BB: Grant. Yes, Grant play hockey.
DH: And Blair just competed in the U.S trials as well?
BB: Yes. So, start with Blair. She kind of grew up as a gymnast and won the state championships at level 8, and kind of thought she was going to go on a path to go to college and do gymnastics but her wrists weren’t going to let her do that. So, she had to give that up at the age of around 13 and after that decided – she played soccer all along and while I was over in Sochi with you, I got a video of her and she’s speed skating and I’m like, she doesn’t even have speed skates. I knew she had some hockey skates that everyone said she’d get on but she’s like, okay, I have to figure out something to do in the winter time. I think I’m going to do this speed skating thing so it’s really been about five years.
When she first started, she couldn’t do a crossover stroke so she’s come a really long way. In a short amount of time she’s made our last two Junior World teams.
DH: It’s not Blair competition in our blood, Bonnie.
BB: She has the Blair competition, yes. She has one more year left at juniors and she is on the path of the potential of making an Olympic team. And if it’s not this next Olympics, it’ll be the next one but once again, that comes from her, she has to still love it and want to do it. She had a very successful senior high school year of soccer and when I said to her, are you sure you don’t want to maybe go to school? And she wouldn’t have been able to go D1, but she would have been able to go D3 for soccer and she’s like, “No, I want to speed skate.” And inside of me, I’m like, yes!
So, this last year we were in Germany and in Italy and seeing rinks that my husband and I used to skate at which has been a lot of fun and I look forward to those next few years. And as long as she still wants to do it, like I said, it has to come from her so as long as she’s in it, we’re in it for the ride too. And you know, she’s kind of taking a little Hiatus from college and that’s okay. And then our son, Grant plays hockey. He’s a playing out of Colorado Springs at Colorado College. That’s D1 for hockey, they only have two D1 Sports there, that and girls’ soccer. I had a nephew that went there and I’ve got part of my family, relatives live in the area so it makes it really nice that he’s got family surrounding him.
We went to quite a few games and then if not, then we get to watch them on the computer when we’re not around. So, he, as a freshman this last year even though he’s going to be 21, Hokey is a little different than other Collegiate Sports. You typically go and play Junior Hockey. So after High School he did that. He went up to Canada and played two years up there and now he just finished his freshman year. As a freshman he has a lot of ice time playing penalty kill, power play and was a regular in the lineup so, it was fun being a parent this year.
Like I said, my kids are thriving and I’m enjoying the ride. I’m along for the ride just take me where we want to go.
DH: I tell you, Bonnie it has been a blur but a wonderful blur spending time with you this morning. It’s great to see you again. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the gems, the pearls that you have gleaned from them that we can apply to our lives as well. You definitely embody this idea of keep on pushing, working to be your best competing against yourself, defining success on your own terms and being willing to risk in order to continue to grow and to excel.
Thank you so much, Bonnie for gracing us with your presence.
BB: Sure thing, Devon nice to see you too.
DH: Yeah man, Keep on pushing.