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Bonnie Blair Without Skates

She's off to Nagano as cheerleader and spokeswoman

What would the Winter Olympics be like without Bonnie Blair, the chipper champion of speed skating?

Certainly many would miss her friendliness, spunk, Midwestern wholesomeness, and athletic brilliance, to say nothing of the fun and enthusiasm her Blair Bunch cheering section always brought to the crowds that watch.

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Before anybody gets misty-eyed thinking of Blair in retirement, though, consider this: She will be in Nagano - but not as an athlete. This time, she told reporters on a recent teleconference, she will assume two main roles; as supportive wife and as a corporate spokeswoman.

In the former capacity she will cheer on husband and speed skater Dave Cruikshank, who is competing in his fourth Olympics but is not a serious medal contender. In the latter role, she will serve as a hired celebrity for Olympic sponsors AT&T, Coca-Cola, John Hancock, and UPS. "I'm excited that I will be spread around," she says from the couple's Milwaukee home.

Putting on a happy face for sponsors might not come easy for some athletes, but Blair is a natural with genuine appreciation for their contributions. "Without sponsors our athletes wouldn't get to the Olympics," she says.

Early in her career she was hard-pressed to pay training and travel expenses. The police department in her family home of Champaign, Ill., came to the rescue with a 10-year fund-raising campaign.

This helped "Bonnie the Blur" become one of the most decorated and admired athletes in Winter Games history, with gold medals in three consecutive Olympics and five overall, plus a bronze.

She expects to feel a little lost and helpless at the Nagano Games, watching from the stands, not being able to approach her husband. "I'm feeling more nervous," she acknowledged. "I won't be able to get right up to the ice and talk to him."

They won't even be living together, since Cruikshank will stay in the athletes' village, and the Blair fan club, including her ever-loyal mother, isn't coming. "Having been to Japan before I knew it would be a difficult trip. My mom's not real happy about staying home, but I think it's the best thing."

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The family will be with Cruikshank in spirit, Blair says, "I'll be passing along Dave's e-mail address to everyone."

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