Last week's 1987 U.S. figure skating Championships in Tacoma, Wash., had just about everything but a mush pot and, well, a dictionary. Quads? Yes, not the muscles but the 'ruples. BTBs? Definitely. Gastrocs? By the dozens, one of them torn. 'Tano Triples? You bet. Waxels? Hoo boy! Unitards? Sure. But mush pots? Not a one as far as the eye could see, which, between the fog and the smog of this city's paper mills, was about 30 yards if you bothered to step outside the Tacoma Dome.
It was a memorable competition all right. On Thursday, 1985 champions Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard of Los Angeles set the tone by becoming the first team in 52 years to regain the U.S. Pairs Championship. They knocked off defending champs Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner. Friday brought another upset, as defending dance champions Renee Roca and Donald Adair lost their crown to the breezy, crowd-pleasing duo of Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory.
But these were mere appetizers. The real interest focused, as usual, on the singles, in which the defending champions, Brian Boitano and Debi Thomas, were also the reigning world champs. Boitano, 23, was going after his third straight men's title, and he wound up winning in a walk. A stylish, technically powerful skater whose star is still ascending, he is head and shoulders above his U.S. competition. After the compulsory figures and the short program, Boitano had such a commanding lead over Christopher Bowman, the eventual second-place finisher, that the only matter of conjecture was whether Boitano would become the first-ever skater to pull off a quadruple jump during his freestyle program. Czechoslovakia's Josef Sabovcik had come the closest, when he performed a flawed quad in the 1985 European Championships, landing on two feet instead of one.
Boitano, who has been landing quads in practice since 1983—he estimates that he hits them 85% of the time in workouts—had fallen the only other time he had attempted one in competition. However, that was last October. He had little to lose by trying the jump again in Tacoma, and much to gain if he could securely tuck the quad into his Olympic repertoire. "He may not need it in Calgary," said his coach, Linda Leaver. "Or he may really need it. But whichever is the case, our strategy is, let's get it ready now."
February 16, 1987
Besides, Boitano likes a challenge. He really does. So when he unveiled his freestyle program on Saturday night, he included, just before the much bally-hooed quad, a little number he had invented called the 'Tano Triple. In it he throws his left arm dramatically over his head and holds his right hand away from his body as he rotates through the air, a matador spinning weightlessly. After that, Boitano was supposed to segue to a triple Axel, but he popped it and turned it into a single. Then came a camel spin and, a minute into his program, the quad.
Boitano bounded—he has the vertical leap of a kangaroo—and became a blur in the air. One, two, three, four revolutions, but as he landed, his upper body was pitched too far forward and he touched the ice with his hand in an effort to maintain his balance. Imperfect success. Once the quad was behind him, Boitano relaxed and was stunning the rest of the way—classy as opposed to bouncy and gratuitous—earning a standing ovation from the crowd of 10,256 and 5.9s from eight of the nine judges.
"I don't think I could be much happier with the quad," he said afterward, promising to keep it in his program when he defends his world championship next month in Cincinnati.
But the real drama was provided by the ladies' competition. Before anyone had even arrived in Tacoma, Thomas was rumored to be off form. The gossip had her coach, Alex McGowan, fuming after the competition. "The first rumor was that she wasn't going to come," McGowan said. "The next rumor was that she would do the figures and then drop out, so she could say she had competed and automatically qualify for the worlds. And the third rumor was that she hadn't trained. I had judges coming up to me the first two days saying, 'Is this true? Is that true?'
"It's politics. These were rumors deliberately planted by one of the other camps. I can't say which one because I can't prove it. But if you can weaken a champion's position in some of the judges' minds, then your rumors have accomplished something, and there were some judges upset at Debi before she had even arrived."
Rumormongering is the least appealing aspect of figure skating, and the less it is dwelled upon, the better. This much, however, was true. Thomas, a sophomore at Stanford who is studying premed, had not begun training until mid-December. She was cutting it close and knew it. Moreover, she had strained her calf muscles on Jan. 2 while lifting weights on the advice of the owner of a 24-hour weight-training center. The injury kept her off the ice for 10 days.
"I pulled my gastroc doing dumb calf-raise things that I shouldn't even have been doing for skating," she said, pointing out the gastroc muscle—which must be somewhere in the calf—to the assembled ignoramuses of the press. "It strained the tendons, and now they're really swollen and deformed and lumpy and ugly and they hurt."
During her workouts early in the week Thomas struggled with her jumps, but McGowan could take some comfort in her history of skating poorly in practice and then excelling in competition. Sure enough, in Wednesday's compulsories, which accounted for 30% of the scoring, Thomas was easily the best of the women. She was so relaxed she studied biology between doing her figures.
The surprise second-place finisher in the compulsories was Jill Trenary, 18, a Minnetonka, Minn., native who has lived in Colorado Springs the last 2½ years so that she could work under renowned coach Carlo Fassi, who has tutored, among others, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill. In third place was Caryn Kadavy, another Fassi pupil and the skater most insiders figured to pose the greatest threat to Thomas. Tiffany Chin, the 1985 U.S. champ, stood fourth.
"I kept reading in the newspapers, 'Jill Trenary muddles up Senior Ladies Division,' " Trenary would later recall, wrinkling her nose primly at the notion of muddling up anything. "That pushed me to prove them wrong."
Trenary, a senior at Cheyenne Mountain High, may have been a new face, but she had a pretty good track record. Last December she finished second in the Prize of Moscow News competition, the only non-Soviet to win a medal, and in 1985 she won the U.S. junior championship. In last year's nationals she finished fifth in the senior division, a remarkable performance not only because she was only 17 but also because seven months earlier, in June '85, a skating mishap nearly ended her career.
During a routine practice she and another skater collided while jumping, and two calf muscles in Trenary's left leg were severed. They had to be surgically reconnected, and Trenary spent the next two months in a cast, wondering whether she would ever compete again. Now, less than two years later, she was talking about dethroning Thomas. "I feel like the one who's up-and-coming," Trenary announced after her surprising show in the figures. "It's possible for me to win."
Rumors notwithstanding, Thomas didn't seem very vulnerable after completing the short program. Skating to the same music (Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood) that she used in last year's nationals and worlds, Thomas unveiled her black sequined unitard outfit—the majority of the men dressed more femininely—and performed flawlessly. "My music's pretty rocked out, so a skirt looks funny with it," she said. "I think the Europeans will like it."
Trenary followed with an equally flawless short to cement her hold on second. Kadavy, however, skated disastrously, botching her combination jump and falling on her double Axel ("We call that a Waxel," one skater remarked as Kadavy sprawled inelegantly across the ice), which allowed Chin to move into third place. "I came to compete," Chin said afterward in what, sadly, may turn out to be her final press conference as an amateur. "I'm not a mush pot."
None of these skaters is. In fact the American women have never been stronger. In Saturday's freestyle, however, only Trenary shone. To retain her title, Thomas still had to beat Trenary in the long program, which accounted for 50% of the scoring. Things didn't bode well when Thomas discovered on Saturday morning that her left tendon was unusually sore and she was having trouble pushing off with that skate. A concerned McGowan decided to reduce the number of triple jumps in Thomas's long program from five to three. "Major BTB," Thomas said later. "Big-time boo-boo. We thought if we played it safe things would work out, but that's not me."
On her first triple toe loop, Thomas, wearing a traditional emerald dress, stumbled. The setback seemed to draw the fire right out of her. The woman with the nerves of steel, who is usually at her best in big events, was suddenly mortal. She did land her two other triples, but her performance was flat. It lacked her typical jazzy, daring style.
"The pain was a little bitty thing," she said. "In a sport like this you have to make yourself do it when you need it. Something was missing tonight for me. Some of my guts weren't there."
Trenary, who was up next, knew if she skated well the title was hers. She had five triples planned, of which the second, a triple flip, was the most difficult. "When I hit that I knew that my feet were under me," Trenary said afterward. She stepped out of one triple Salchow, but aside from that was wonderful and an easy choice for the judges, who do not lightly vote against a reigning world champion. Kadavy, skating last, finished third, snatching the final position on the U.S. team that will be competing in Cincinnati from Chin, who was unable to land a triple. Later that night, Chin was still undecided whether Tacoma had been her last nationals.
As for Thomas, she was remarkably relaxed about her loss. She seemed almost relieved to be able to step out of the limelight for a little while. "It was a bigger deal for me to win last year, and it will probably mean more again next year," she said with a shrug. "I told Mr. McGowan that I wouldn't be broken up if I didn't win, and I'm not. It's a lot more fun to win as the underdog. Just ask Jill."
No need to, judging by the smile.