As Bonnie Blair Cruikshank looks out onto the speedskating rink in Calgary, Alberta, memories flood into her mind. This is the place she won her first Olympic medal, where she first heard the national anthem being played in honor of her accomplishment. Thirty-one years ago, Calgary was the place where she began an Olympic journey that ended with five gold medals and one bronze won over three Winter Games.
But now, she’s in Calgary for a different reason.
This past weekend, Bonnie was there to watch her daughter, Blair Cruikshank, compete in the Canada Cup. Blair is following in her parents’ footsteps — Bonnie’s husband, Dave Cruikshank, is himself a three-time Olympic speedskater — and rising through the ranks of the sport, competing in 500- and 1,000-meter races.
“Being in the stands and watching, and in some respects, feeling so helpless,” said Bonnie, who turns 55 today. “You feel anxious. Last night, I told her, I even had an anxiety dream!”
One of the country’s most celebrated Olympians and the only American woman to win five gold medals at the Olympic Winter Games, Bonnie Blair Cruikshank is one of the Women of Team USA being celebrated this week.
Now long since retired from her competitive racing career, Bonnie is learning the art of being a speedskating parent, and how to walk that fine line of being a mom and an incredibly accomplished speedskater. Blair, 18, is fairly new to the sport, having started just five years ago. When Bonnie wants to push, Dave preaches patience.
“When she first started this five years ago, she couldn’t do a crossover,” Bonnie said. “She’s really come light-years, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the progress. My husband is more so her coach. I’m not a total silent bystander, but I try to be. I’ve got to remember my patience, not just as a mom, but as a coach in the wings.”
At the competition in Calgary, Bonnie noticed there weren’t many skaters earning personal bests, and she knew Blair could grab hers because when others aren’t getting personal bests, Blair does. That was one of those moments when the coach in Bonnie came out.
“I try not to get to technical with stuff,” Bonnie said. “You want her to have fun. You want her to enjoy it. You’re at an awesome facility. It’s exciting to be here and be in the mix of it.”
Blair raced to personal records in both the 500 and 1,000 in Calgary.
Though more than two decades have passed since her last Winter Games appearance, Bonnie’s influence on Team USA isn’t limited to her daughter, or her son Grant, who plays ice hockey for Colorado College. She is the vice president of the board of directors for Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, where she trained for her Olympic run, and also stays in close touch with Brittany Bowe, a two-time Olympian who recently broke the world record in the 1,000-meter.
(R-L) Bonnie Blair Cruikshank smiles for a photo with her daughter Blair Cruikshank.
“It’s been so much fun to watch. Especially after all the frustration she’s had,” Bonnie said. “I text her, wish her luck before the races, text her afterwards. When she won the 1,000 in the world record time, I said, ‘Speechless, and you know that’s not easy for me.’”
Bonnie’s pride in Bowe is evident. Bowe struggled with post-concussion symptoms before the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, but she still won a bronze in the team pursuit and had three individual top-five finishes.
“You almost wonder that if the Olympics were one month later, what would have happened,” Bonnie said. “Even last year, she skated pretty well considering the circumstances. How she came back from what she was in, she skated amazing.”
As she watches Bowe and her daughter navigate athletic careers, Bonnie has noticed one big difference from when she was competing.
“The difference now is the multimedia facet of it. Even me being able to text Brittany,” she said. “Part of me is like, ‘I want to text her and wish her luck. Part of me is like, ‘Leave her alone!’ They’ve grown up in being constantly on their phone, and they know what people are saying about them on an instantaneous basis. They’re used to it, but I was glad that when I went to Lillehammer (for the 1994 Winter Games), I didn’t know where any of my family was even staying. I never even saw them, or heard them, until I got to the rink and I saw them in the stands.”
As Bonnie looks back at her career, she has a hard time singling out one favorite memory because every medal she won came with its own set of challenges.
“In ‘88, winning the 500, winning in world-record time, to do something for the very first time, has an enormous power and emotion behind it,” she said. “That’s hard to capture again.”
Six years later, she stood on the podium again in Lillehammer and listened to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after winning both the 500 and 1,000.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be skating in another Olympics,” she said. “To have those emotions, hearing the national anthem, thinking, ‘I’m never going to do this again. Will I ever hear the national anthem as it’s being played right now? Probably not.’ It was an emotional, almost sad feeling. I knew that was my last Olympics.”
She keeps those medals and other mementos from both her and her husband’s Olympic careers in a specially made coffee table in the shape of the Olympic rings. Each ring represents an Olympics they competed in. It’s not flashy, but a good reminder that the mom cheering on her daughter at speedskating events, or her son at Colorado College hockey games, knows what those athletes on the ice are going through.
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.