Publish date:

Flashback: Thou Swell, Thou Witt-y


Cincinnati, which Longfellow described as ''the Queen City of the West,'' was taken by the heartstrings last week. So sweetly was the city conquered by the Queen of the East, Katarina Witt, that even Debi Thomas -- the defending world figure skating champion, whose best performance in more than a year was stuffed gracefully back in her face by the indomitable Witt -- came away an admirer.

How could she not have? No sooner had Thomas left the Riverfront Coliseum ice on Saturday night, triumphantly waving an armful of bouquets and a box of congealed Domino's pizza, than out stepped Witt, the 21-year-old East German. As the final skater of the 1987 World Championships, she needed near-perfect marks to regain her title. And -- ach, du lieber Gott! -- the noise! The crowd, enthusiastic all week, had saved its loudest din for last.

''It was uncommonly difficult to skate after Debi. The crowd was in such ecstasy,'' Witt would say later of the 15,085 spectators in the Coliseum, a building that Frau Jutta Muller, Witt's coach, called a ''witch kettle'' because of the way the stands rise steeply from the ice. ''But I felt good, and I said to myself, You are the best. Do it. And I did.''

Skating to music from West Side Story, the same program she used at last year's worlds in Geneva, Witt pranced; she wooed; she ascended. In all, she stylishly landed five triple jumps and two double Axels without a flaw. Seven of the nine judges put Witt first, and Thomas, who watched the whole performance from rinkside, wasn't about to take issue with their selection. '

'I just said to myself, 'The girl's amazing,' '' Thomas admitted. ''We've never seen her skate after somebody who had really skated well before. This was sort of a test to see how tough she was. Well, she's really tough.'' The back-to-back long programs of Thomas and Witt were the highlights of a week that went a long way toward establishing Cincinnati -- unlikely as it sounds -- as the U.S. hub of international skating.

Not only were all the performances sold out, but many of the practices were SRO. And polite? Every tumble, regardless of a skater's nationality or placing, met with groans. Each jump was applauded. There were so many standing ovations that a building inspector should have ordered the seats checked for tacks. Japan's Midori Ito, who was 14th in the ladies' singles at the time, got one for her short program, as did Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley from Canada, and Brian Boitano and Christopher Bowman from the U.S. In the pairs competition, the reception given to Americans Peter Oppegard and Jill Watson -- an exciting couple who were the surprise winners of the bronze -- was only slightly warmer than that awarded the Soviet Union's enchanting Ekaterina Gordeeva, 15, and Sergei Grinkov, 20, who won the world title for the second time in as many attempts.

Soviet dancers Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin won their third world championship Friday night with a program skated to music from Cabaret, which was interrupted numerous times by applause and ultimately brought the packed house to its feet. It also earned B & B six perfect 6.0s, the most awarded a performance all week.

Meanwhile, the elegant, doe-eyed Witt received so many ovations during her workouts that Thomas's coach, Alex McGowan, almost caused an international incident. McGowan accused Witt of ''milking the crowd'' when she acknowledged the applause of Cincinnatians with waves and smiles. He claimed Witt's friendliness was ''planned, not spontaneous'' and begged the gentle folk of the Queen City not to ''fall for this,'' asking them instead to show some flag-waving nationalism to spur on Debi.

The accusation, daft as it was, stung the East German camp, and Frau Muller struck back by saying, ''We try to make nice relationships. Katarina does not need to draw the public to her side by any other means. She does it with her skating. And part of (skating) is, when your public claps, you thank them by bowing to them.''

But what, after all, would the women's section of a figure skating competition be without a little acrimony? Answer: like the men's section, which annually is such a model of sportsmanship and fraternity that it may as well take place in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The men's competition these days is pretty much a good-natured set-to among Boitano, the 23-year-old Californian who came to Cincy as the defending world champion, the U.S.S.R.'s Alexander Fadeev and Canada's Orser.

Fadeev, small and quick-footed in the style of Scott Hamilton, had won the men's world title in 1985, while Orser, an artistic leaper, finished second in the worlds three times, from 1984 to '86, and was second to Hamilton in the '84 Olympics. Orser would have beaten Boitano in last year's worlds had he not twice botched his trademark jump, the triple Axel, in the free-skating program, and the feeling in Cincinnati was that this was a make-or-break year for Orser. To help himself over the hump, Orser last fall began working with Canadian sports psychologist Peter Jensen. ''He had the physical skills to be champion,'' says Jensen. ''What we tried to do was develop mental skills which allowed him access to those physical skills.''

To that end, Jensen put Orser and most of the rest of the Canadian team in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens two weeks before the worlds to simulate the entire competition. They held a draw; they had a P.A. announcer introduce the skaters; they had people pose as judges; a television crew was on hand. They even asked someone to act the part of an obnoxious reporter who disrupted the competitors' concentration just before they stepped onto the ice.

''We simulated everything,'' said Orser. ''We had a well-defined strategy prepared, no matter where in the draw I skated.'' There were to be no surprises. Orser would feel as if he'd been through it all before, so he could focus solely on skating. And that is just what he did last Tuesday when he won the short program with ; a vibrant, sure-footed performance.

SI Recommends

''I knew before I even went out it would be a good performance,'' Orser said afterward. ''I was jumping around back here like I owned the place.'' Small wonder, since the only things Orser had eaten all day were a milkshake of orange juice, brewer's yeast, protein powder and egg, and one high-energy ball of granola and oats. That is the other thing Orser has done in the last year; he's been working with a nutritionist.

But with all due respect to his sports psychologist and his food guru, the most important decision Orser made in 1987 was not to indulge in a diet of quads. You remember the quad -- the quadruple toe loop that Boitano unsuccessfully attempted at last month's U.S. championships and that he vowed to try again at the worlds. ''There's a fine line between stupidity and greatness,'' Boitano said. ''But the more I learn about this jump, the better off I'll be for the Olympics.''

Boitano needs the quad to beat Orser. Either that, or a choreographer. Technically, there is little to choose from between the two, and both are superior to Fadeev. But artistically, Orser is clearly Boitano's better. He looked like a dancer last Thursday night during his nearly flawless long program. This included six triple jumps -- an unprecedented two triple Axels -- and vaulted him past both his rivals to his first world championship. This was the first Canadian men's title since Don McPherson's in 1963. Boitano, skating two positions later, fell outright upon landing his quad and never quite recovered, stumbling twice more before completing his program to finish second overall.

''It's kind of neat that all three of us now have a (world) title,'' Boitano said afterward, masking his disappointment with goodwill. ''If Brian had gone his whole career without winning a gold it wouldn't have been justice.'' These words notwithstanding, Boitano was in tears that night when recounting his loss to a friend over the telephone.

Most of the tears in the ladies' competition flowed last Wednesday, the day of the dread compulsory figures. For starters, newly crowned U.S. champion Jill Trenary succumbed to the pressure of her worlds debut by missing the center of her first figure by a full six inches, effectively removing her from medal consideration for the rest of the competition. She eventually pulled herself up to seventh. Then Witt, a mediocre competitor in figures, finished fifth in the compulsories -- three places behind Thomas -- after which she returned to the locker room to cry. The championship was now Thomas's to lose; if Witt were to win both the short and long programs, and Thomas were to finish second in them, the title would remain Debi's. But it wasn't to be.

During Thursday's short program Thomas threw the competition wide open by slipping on one of the seven required elements, the double Axel, eventually finishing seventh. The day before, she had cracked her head against the boards while practicing the same jump. Witt, who won the short program with a bouncy, high-kicking routine set to Glenn Miller's In the Mood, was suddenly in second place behind the Soviet's Kira Ivanova, a pedestrian free skater who dressed up for the short program like Joel Grey in drag, and skated almost as hideously. Thomas was in third. Kadavy was fifth. Witt was in control.

She spent Friday, an off-day, shopping and touring the city. She visited the white tigers in the Cincinnati Zoo, turning down an invitation to get into a cage with a cub that a handler had on a chain, and had herself weighed in the world famous insectarium. Kati, as she is known to friends, tipped the scale at some 22 million insects -- 115 pounds, which is 9 pounds less than she weighed a year ago when she lost her title to Thomas.

This time around, however, it was Thomas who was in suspect shape. Bothered by tendinitis, she had struggled with her free-skating program all season. Canada's Manley, after watching Debi practice, said, ''She's a completely different girl this year. I don't think she's taking it as seriously.''

Thomas herself admitted, ''I need another miracle performance like the 1986 nationals.'' That was the last time Debi had landed five triples. And Saturday night, while the Coliseum rocked and McGowan shook his fists and leaped in joy, she did it again -- plus two clean double Axels for good measure. ''No way I was going to miss one of those again,'' she said later.

Second place, at least, was assured. And Kadavy, who is finally realizing the potential that nearly everyone in skating has recognized in her, had already secured, at worst, third place. So the stage was set for Witt, who lives for such attention. ''Kati skates for the crowds,'' says an East German friend, explaining why it is natural for her to aspire to an acting career after the 1988 Olympics. ''She cannot imagine life without an audience.''

After waiting for the ovation for Thomas to settle, Witt took the ice and ! treated Cincinnatians to the performance of her life, landing three different triple jumps plus a pair of double Axels -- all seemingly without effort.

''She did a program I have seen a hundred times, and today it was as if I had seen it for the first time,'' said an emotional Muller afterward. ''Really, at her best, nobody could come close.''

Later, when asked for her impressions of Cincinnati, Katarina smiled and said in good English, ''Yesterday we saw the white tiger, the baby, and it gave us some strength on this day. The whole city was prepared for this championship. Everyone was so kindly to me. I never had a championship like this.'' Nor had this city ever seen a tigress and a champion like Witt.

Issue date: March 23, 1987.