To celebrate National Best Friends Day on June 8, five-time Olympic speedskating champion Bonnie Blair details her friendship with fellow Olympic speedskating champion Dan Jansen (or DJ) for TeamUSA.org. A friendship that began in the mid-1960s, Blair and Jansen have remained close through four Olympic appearances together, as well as personal triumphs and tragedies, and much more.
When does a friendship start? In our case, prior to birth; better yet before we were ever even thought of…
The sport of speedskating is rather small, so you pretty much know everyone who is involved. Our families were friends and if there was a competition in Champaign, Illinois, DJ’s brother (Dick Jansen) would stay at our house and if there was a meet in Milwaukee, my brother (Rob Blair) would stay at theirs. So Rob and Dick were friends and both our dads, Charlie Blair and Harry Jansen, could always be found timing races at the finish line with their stopwatches for every race all day long — through snow, cold, rain or whatever Mother Nature would dish out.
So, when I was born in 1964 and DJ was born in 1965, we were destined to be friends or for sure at least know each other very well. How strong our friendship would become was due to spending our younger years traveling on weekends all over the Midwest, even outside of that occasionally. In 1983, once the both of us started making international speedskating teams together, the bond would continue to grow…
|My husband Dave, DJ and me in 2014|
During our years on the skating circuit, we would be traveling eight months out of the year and virtually be living under the same roof during most of that time. You really get to know someone pretty well during that time; enough to know whom you want to keep in touch with the rest of your life. I am sure it is like going to college, although neither of us had that experience. I actually think our experience was much better and way more unique. You know what the other person likes to eat for every meal, whether they are organized or a slob, if they were crabby and when to stay away, but most of all, you learn to know you can count on them no matter what.
I know there were times I would drive DJ nuts, as I might talk a bit ☺. I also did whatever I could to skate not just behind DJ, but also Nick Thometz, Dave Cruikshank (my husband) and a few others, as they really are a tribute to the success I had. It was like the little sibling (even though I was older) that always followed you wherever you went. But, I guess I tried to make up for it by fixing chocolate chip cookies or my “killer brownies” (not an easy task in Europe, but I would travel with my own ingredients).
However, it couldn’t have been that bad as one time in Butte, Montana, DJ lived with me for a few weeks in an apartment that I had there. I even got him watching “General Hospital” with me; he never liked to admit he knew what was going on, but he definitely knew and even asked a few times after his visit what was going on.
Typically when we raced on a given weekend, the females would go first and the guys second. The two of us were so similar that our 500-meter times would almost always be separated by 3 seconds. So, no matter who raced first the other would have a good idea what their time was going to be. In fact, in Milwaukee, for a set of fun races put on by a sponsor, Milwaukee Insurance, we raced a 500 against each other, and I started and then 3 seconds later a second gun went off. We came across the line at a dead heat — DJ’s dad had him winning and my dad had me winning, so the win was given to me ☺. One of the most fun races I ever had.
At our second Olympic Winter Games in 1988, it was a very emotional time. DJ’s races were early in the Games and mine toward the end. We all knew DJ’s sister was not doing well, and she really took a turn for the worse early the morning of his race. I will never forget seeing him in the hallway and just giving him a hug and letting him cry. I don’t think anyone thought he wouldn’t race and at least try, which is something I admire. After his second race and second fall, he flew home for the funeral and came back before my races started. Once again, we would meet in the hall (this time at the rink) and hug, and if I could have shared my medal with him, I would have…another emotional moment.
|DJ and I pose with our medals in 1994|
In 1994, once again DJ would race early in the Games and myself late. During his first race, I was in the stands watching him as well as Dave and two other teammates. However, every time the gun went off my heart was pounding. It was exhausting when DJ slipped and missed a medal again…it was just way too emotional and I knew for his 1,000-meter I could not be in the stands because my race was the next day and I would need to be resting back at the village. I knew I made the right decision to be at the village, but once he won, all I wanted to do was talk to him and give him a hug. However, I knew that wasn’t going happen and knew he would not be coming back to the village as he was going to go celebrate the gold medal that had always seemed to elude him until that day.
This was before cell phones, but luckily the medical staff had to keep in touch with each other and since I was watching the race in the sports medicine facility I was able to talk to him and share a special moment that seemed to be so long overdue. No hugs yet, however, the next day I saw him in the stands prior to my race, but couldn’t let myself get too carried away as I had to focus for my race in about an hour. Just knowing he was there was comforting, though.
I am sure due to the fact we both were gold medalists and would get invited to various events together it has kept our friendship close, but I guess that is just something that took it to another level. I know we would have kept in touch when our skating days were over, but it has really helped us stay exceptionally close. It seems there isn’t more than a few weeks that goes by that we don’t have a reason to call, text or see each other.
It was skating that brought us together, but it is what we went through together — traveling, training, racing, gold medals, family and virtually living together all those years — that has kept our friendship just as strong today as it has been going back as far as I can remember. I love him like a brother and am lucky to have him in my life and to have shared so much — good, bad, happy, sad and emotional in every sense of the word.