A Life Remembered: Eldest Blair sister introduced family to speedskating
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The subject of Bonnie Blair’s birth was a topic of conversation in the wake of last week’s death of her eldest sister, Mary Blair Polaski.
“When Bonnie was born, we were living in New York,” another sister, Suzy Blair Miller said. “(Siblings) Rob, Angela and I were on our way to a skating meet. My dad dropped my mom off at the hospital, and we went on to the meet.”
Long before Bonnie Blair surfaced as America’s “Golden Girl” for winning a record five Winter Olympic Games gold medals in speedskating, Mary Blair was giving the family a prominent name in the sport.
The 1962 Champaign High graduate was the national indoor senior champion in 1968 as well as again in 1981. She won the North American (which included skaters from Canada) Indoor senior title in 1969 and was a multi-time Illinois age-group state champion.
“For Mary and I, there weren’t girls’ sports back then (the 1960s),” said Miller, 64, who lives in Greensboro, Ga. “There weren’t girls’ teams (in high school) for softball or volleyball.
“We didn’t want to figure skate. We wanted to go fast.”
Mary Blair was 19 when her youngest sibling, Bonnie, was born. The youngster was named for a close family friend, who was also a skater.
“Bonnie Blue (now Bonnie Vaughn) lived across the street from us (in Champaign),” Miller said. “She skated with us and was like part of the family. That’s who Bonnie (Blair) was named after.”
Vaughn offered a tribute to the person who was the maid of honor at her wedding.
“She was good at anything she did,” Vaughn said. “She was a very good friend, a good mom, a good wife and a good person.”
Skating didn’t get in the way of their friendship.
“If I won, she was supportive,” Vaughn said. “If she won, I was supportive. There were never any hard feelings.”
Mary Blair Polaski helped champion the sport as more than a competitor, serving as the United States World Team Short-Track coach in 1978 and 1979. After relocating to Colorado, she started the Broadmoor Speedskating Club.
“She motivated a lot of people,” Urbana’s Ray Timpone Jr. said. “When she was in Northbrook, she coached two guys I skated against and made them really tough.
“She was the matriarch of the Blair family.”
In 1998, she became the second family member enshrined in the National Speedskating Museum and Hall of Fame. She joined her father, Charles, who served as a meet timer for decades.
“It was not only (recognition) for her skating but her contributions to the sport afterward,” Miller said. “She helped coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.”
Though they were separated in age by nearly two decades, Bonnie Blair Cruikshank was close to her oldest sister from the beginning.
“She took me everywhere,” Cruikshank recalled. “I was like this live doll for her to take care of. The joke was that I was in every bar in Champaign before my first birthday.”
Cruikshank can’t imagine how different her life would have been had her older siblings been enthralled by music or the theater rather than speedskating.
“It’s funny to think, ‘What would I have become? Would I have done something else?’ ” Cruikshank said. “It was such a family sport. They were so well into it by the time I came along, that was the way it was. I didn’t know any different. She was the front-runner to us being involved in the sport.”
Champaign native Kathy Reno Zentmyer was a year behind Blair Polaski in school, but the speedskaters competed in the same division every other year.
“Her incredible energy, enthusiasm and sense of humor made it an enjoyable experience to skate against her,” Zentmyer said. “Our friendship went beyond the skating experience. We went to school together and shared friends in other capacities.”
At the meets, it wasn’t a cutthroat rivalry.
“We raced against each other, but it wasn’t vicious competition,” Zentmyer said. “I remember really enjoying sharing the experience of skating and competing together. I think about the fun we had and how we enjoyed the activity.”
Another former Champaign speedskater, Jeff Edwards, recalled training sessions with Mary Blair as well as watching her compete.
“Mary was a determined, focused athlete,” Edwards said, “but she also knew how to have fun at the same time. You rarely saw her on the sidelines just talking and not skating; she was always ‘on.’ After the training or the competition, she was one of the fun people to be around.
“Mary was very outgoing. She would talk to me even though I was younger (by 6 years), which I liked. Maybe because she had younger siblings, she knew what to say.”
More than a decade ago, Polaski was diagnosed with leukemia. She battled the disease with the same fervor and determination she displayed in the speedskating rink.
“When they first diagnosed her, they gave her six months to live,” said Cruikshank, who lives in Wisconsin. “Through it all, with whatever struggles there were, there was always a smile on her face.”
Less than a month before she passed away, Polaski underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Neither of her surviving sisters, Bonnie, Suzy or Angela Blair-Allen, were matches.
“We were disappointed we couldn’t personally help her out,” said Cruikshank, 49, who will remember her sister’s vibrancy and spirit even during her illness.
“A lot of people never knew she was sick,” Cruikshank said. “She didn’t want to talk about it. She wanted to go, go, go. A couple days before she went into the hospital (for the transplant), she was going to her grandkids’ hockey games and following them all over the place.”
Edwards was among the approximately 400 mourners who attended last week’s service for Polaski.
“I had never been to a service where so many people attended.” said Edwards, who lives in Wisconsin. “It was one of the best, if not the best, funeral service I’ve attended. It went long but seemed to take minutes.”
Polaski coached high school swimming and tennis in Colorado, and she also served as the state’s high school hockey commissioner.
Polaski is survived by her husband, Ken, a former University of Illinois gymnastics letterman, children: Kenneth Jr., Diana, Scott and Nicholas, and four grandchildren. Services were Friday in Colorado.
Her favorite saying, daughter Diana said, was “keep smiling.”