Cashing In On The Collywobbles

Debi Thomas and Brian Boitano of the U.S. kept their cool and took the world figure skating titles from those who didn't
March 31, 1986

Two kids grow up in neighboring towns in California's Silicon Valley. He's white, 22, the son of upper-middle-class parents (father: banker; mother: housewife). She's black, 18, a college student, her parents—a computer program manager and a program analyst—are divorced. They meet in Geneva and, assisted by a veritable plague of the collywobbles, dethrone a couple of Eastern-bloc world champions, including a beautiful villainess, and tip the figure skating world on its sit spin. And...No, no, they don't fall in love. America falls in love with them—a pair of refreshing first-time champs and a wonderful reminder that U.S. athletes are, well, damn good at upsets. And occasionally can even joke about it.

As in the scene last Saturday morning when Brian Boitano of Sunnyvale, Calif. and Debi Thomas of nearby San Jose posed with their gold medals and a single orange gladiola. Thomas playfully pretended to offer the flower to the memory of Olympic gold medal winner and two-time world champion Katarina Witt's reign. Then, "No, no. I take it back," the new world ladies' champion said, cringing. "I'll pay for that."

"No kidding," said Boitano, the men's champ. "Did you see Katarina during practice? It was, like, a miracle if you two ever made eye contact. 'Grrr. Get out of my way,' " he said, curling his lip. He concluded with a shudder, "You girls are ruthless."

Ruthlessly brilliant, perhaps, as was Boitano—though there is not a ruthless bone in his body—who launched himself from fourth place to the world title during the men's long program on Thursday night. This was an event so marred by tumbles—there were 15 falls and "failures" among the top six finishers—it seemed as if a berserk puppeteer had taken over the proceedings and then been stricken with fits of ague.

"In a men's final, that number of falls is virtually unseen," Boitano said afterward. "Usually it's the women who are either good or gross. But with all the triples and combinations in the programs now, you never know. It could be me next time."

Not likely. Boitano, who finished third in last year's worlds and fifth in the '84 Olympics, is nothing if not consistent. Brian, a full-time skater with aspirations for the '88 Olympics and probably, eventually, an ice show, laced on his first pair of ice skates at age eight after neighbors alerted his mother, Donna, that young Brian was bounding around the neighborhood in his roller skates doing axels and spins. They were petrified he might crack his skull in someone's driveway. He has had the same coach, Linda Leaver, ever since. In 1982, when he was 18, Boitano became the first American man to do a triple axel at the U.S. nationals, and the next year, in his first worlds, he landed all six triples—the first man to do so in that competition—to finish seventh.

"I was like a little technical robot when I was 18 or 19," he says. "I never missed. And the reason I never missed was I never put any energy into my presentation. That's what people picked on me for: no presentation. We've worked on it, but even now it's hard for me not to revert to that style. That's what happened in the short program. I was so scared I went back to my old technical days."

Boitano had suffered strained tendons in his ankle while training for the U.S. nationals in February. Consequently, he had been limiting his freestyle skating to half an hour a day and had practiced his short program only four times. He wanted to get through it cleanly, and that is just what he did on Tuesday. He was clean, cool and mistake-free, with all the flair of a Swiss banker. It left the judges cold, though he held on to fourth place in the combined standings. Leaver said, "I told him afterward that was a lesson for him: No matter what you do technically, if you're not aggressive, you're not going to get the marks."

The first three places going into Thursday's final were filled by the defending world champion, the U.S.S.R.'s Alexandr Fadeev; the 1986 European champion, Czechoslovakia's Jozef Sabovcik; and six-time Canadian champ and '84 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. The chances of Boitano passing all three in the standings were so remote as not to merit discussion. But never underestimate the dread collywobbles, an expression for the jitters that Thomas's Scottish coach, Alex McGowan, used last week. "Collywobbles," said McGowan. "You know. Could be upset tummy. Could be flu. Could be most anything that keeps you home from school the day of an exam."

Could also be an Adam's apple the size of a kumquat. Fadeev, skating first among the finalists, slipped on his first triple axel, tried a triple flip and touched down with his hand, then attempted a quadruple loop—which no one has ever completed in competition—and crashed half a revolution short. By the end of the program Fadeev had faltered badly three times, fallen twice and generally comported himself on the ice like Mr. Frick of the Ice Follies. Asked afterward if it had not been a bit too ambitious, even dangerous, a program for him, Fadeev's coach, Stanislav Zhuk, stoically quoted the Olympic motto ("Farther, higher, stronger") and suggested that it was also possible to maim yourself while crossing the street.

Boitano was next. When Fadeev's marks were announced—5.5s and 5.6s primarily, but including a 5.9 and a 5.8 from Soviet judge Tatiana Danilenko—the crowd booed and whistled lustily, feeling they were too generous. (They were not alone. Danilenko was criticized by other judges for awarding Fadeev the marks and was suspended for two years by Soviet officials.) Afterward Boitano, who had no idea what the fuss was all about, said, "I liked the booing. I don't like it when the crowd focuses on me. I can feel the pressure. But you know what I was thinking about? Instead of triple axels or whatever, I was thinking this is just like Dorothy Hamill in the 1974 worlds in Munich, when the crowd booed some marks given to a hometown girl and Dorothy left the ice in tears. Then she came back, skated beautifully to win the long program and the silver in the competition."

It was still too early for Boitano to worry about first or second place, but he did want to skate well enough to take the bronze. Landing five triples without a hitch, he quickly won over the crowd and displayed the sort of fire and style that had been so flagrantly missing in his short program.

When Sabovcik, skating on a bad knee, turned in a flat long-program performance, the only person standing between Boitano and the gold, shockingly, was Orser. Freestyle is Orser's event—he had beaten U.S. gold medalist Scott Hamilton in both the long and short programs in the '84 Olympics, finishing with the silver because of weak figures—and there was a general feeling in the skating community that the judges were ready to make Orser champion. Which they were, until he flubbed his trademark jump, the triple axel, not once, but twice—crashing first onto his keister and then stepping out of the second. "We'd always thought that for some reason the judges didn't want him," Orser's choreographer, Uschi Keszler, said later. "Then to find out that they did and to lose it on his favorite jump...." The Alydar of figure skating, Orser has now finished second in the worlds for the last three years.

In the passage outside the competitors' rooms, the entire U.S. delegation—skaters, coaches, officials—was gathered around a tiny black-and-white monitor waiting for Orser's scores. When they were flashed, a huge cheer erupted—six judges had put Boitano first; three had chosen Orser, despite his falls. "It's wonderful, it's wonderful," said Carlo Fassi, Hamill's former coach, who now trains America's Caryn Kadavy. "Can you believe it?" gushed Don Laws, Tiffany Chin's guru. "Bless his heart," said another.

Boitano tearfully embraced Leaver for a full half minute. Wiping his eyes, his first words were, "Oh, God, I'm crying. I'm so embarrassed." A moment later Thomas rushed to congratulate him, throwing her arms around his neck and saying, "I'm so psyched for tomorrow!"

Later Thomas would admit that "tomorrow," when she had her freestyle showdown with Witt, lasted "about four weeks." In the early going of the ladies' competition, things had pretty much gone Thomas's way. Her goal in the compulsories had been to finish in the top three, and though the Stanford medical microbiology major had to complete a three-hour calculus exam while in Geneva, she finished second to the U.S.S.R.'s Kira Ivanova—a notoriously weak freestyle skater—and just ahead of the third-place Witt, and Chin, who stood fourth.

In the short program on Wednesday Thomas skated well enough to win, but it was a far cry from her best performance. "I stumbled on my footwork, and I had to yell like one of those karate fighters to land the triple-double combination. 'Hiku!' " she demonstrated gustily. "It was embarrassing."

Not nearly as embarrassing as Witt's jump combination in the short program. Taking the ice as the last skater of the evening, Witt was skating along airily—one might say regally—when suddenly she disappeared along the boards after a double loop: Craaash! An idol fallen. When she reemerged into view, her lovely face was hideously contorted by the German S-word, and her state of mind was no way improved by her subsequent marks. Fourth in the short program, fourth overall. Collywobbles? "I can assure you I wasn't nervous," Witt replied haughtily. "Maybe my reactions were one one-hundredth of a second slow."

Thomas, standing in first place overall, could now finish second to Witt in the long program on Friday and still be crowned world champion.

For the next two days, friends, strangers and media folk treated Thomas's win as a fait accompli. "There goes the world champion.... Two more days till you're world champion...." Thomas mimicked. "I got so sick of it I just wanted it over with. But I can't believe how tough I got. I'd been skating badly all week in practice, but before I went out there for the long program it was like Brian said: I went 'Grrr. Get out of my way.' "

Complicating Thomas's situation was the performance of Canada's Elizabeth Manley, who was way back in 10th place after the short program. She put on a vibrant, bouncy freestyle and received 5.7s and 5.8s, which eventually pulled Manley up to third. That, in effect, removed Thomas's margin of error, particularly after the long-program performance Witt turned in. Skating to music from West Side Story, Katarina was so pretty, she was Maria, but mostly she was Katarina the fighter, making a last elegant rush to hold on to her title. In the past, too much has been made of Witt's looks. She is a steely competitor. (The truth is, she is no longer even the most enchanting champion in skating, that mantle having been passed to the doll-like Soviet pairs skater, 14-year-old Ekatarina Gordeeva, who, at 4'10" and 77 pounds, skims over the ice like a swallow.)

In the long program Witt earned her first two 6.0s in international competition, marks that reached Thomas's ears through the dressing-room wall. Much to her chagrin. "Even if you're trying not to listen, it's pretty hard to ignore the first six-zero you've heard all week. I've never had to go out after 6.0s before," Debi said later. "I've never skated against anyone in my career that had 6.0s. With so much at stake, I didn't know how I'd handle it."

With grace, as usual. Starting slowly—her first two triples were a bit jolting—Thomas relaxed as she landed her third and her fourth while her teammates screamed encouragement. "I wrung my hands so hard I got calluses," said Boitano.

McGowan had convinced Thomas to remove a fifth triple from her program—it was too risky. But, with the guts of a burglar, she suddenly and spontaneously improvised a triple-double combination in place of one of the four triples. "I didn't think about it beforehand," she said later. "All of a sudden I was just doing it. I guess I thought I might need it."

She was having fun, right up until the double axel at the end—the same one that troubled her at the U.S. nationals last month—and when she nailed that cleanly it became clear to everyone that they were applauding the gold medal winner. Only Chin remained to skate. Slipping once, Chin skated the fourth-best long program, winning the bronze medal for the second year in a row.

Thomas had owned the ladies' championship for 20 minutes when Witt was seen angling to get it back. Rumored to be on the verge of retiring, Witt squelched such speculation by declaring: "It's more difficult to defend the title than to win it the first time. It will be hard for Debi next year." Would Katarina be one of those in the hunt? "Yes," she said without hesitation. Then with an iron look she added, "I have decided I will continue skating until I get the title back."

Look out now, Debi. You girls are ruthless.

PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTThomas soared during the long program and was clearly still flying at the finish. PHOTOSTEVE SUTTON/DUOMO[See caption above.] PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTAfter skating the short program like a banker, Boitano turned in a final that was pure gold. PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTOnce again, poor Orser proved an also-ran. PHOTOSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTCollywobbling, Fadeev blew five jumps and finished in third. TWO PHOTOSSTEVE POWELL/ALL-SPORTWitt's 6.0 perfection (above) only brought a silver; Chin (below) got another bronze.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)