LIGHTING UP THE LATE SHIFT

Debi Thomas and Brian Boitano won Olympic berths at a nationals marred by its schedule
January 18, 1988

The big news last week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Denver was that choreographers were in, the quad was out and sleep was in short supply. Somehow a U.S. Olympic team was chosen out of the proceedings at McNichols Arena. But the fact that it will be the strongest U.S. contingent in years, one with a good chance of winning four medals—two of them gold—was obscured by grumbling over a schedule that ran the competition into the wee hours and by the thin air of the Mile High City.

How ridiculous was the scheduling? Consider that Brian Boitano, a former world champion about to win his fourth national title, probably the finest technical skater in the history of the sport, took the ice for his freestyle program—the only time an American audience would have a chance to see it before the Calgary Games—at 12:36 a.m. on Saturday. Was he confident? Nervous? Excited? "I was sleepy," Boitano said afterward, yawning.

Or that entrants in the senior pairs, who did nothing for the first four days of the competition but practice and watch, had to skate their short programs and freestyle programs within 17 hours of each other; about 5½ hours of that time, as much as any of the competitors could manage, were spent in restful slumber (i.e., passed out from exhaustion and/or lack of oxygen). Hey, the idea was to choose an Olympic team.

Oh, well, the judges saw to it that the right skaters—even if some of them weren't at the tippy-top of their game—were selected. And there were some stunning performances, particularly in the singles competitions. But as a general statement, one thing was clear: The U.S. figure skating team hasn't peaked too early this year.

The competition started on a flat note when Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory defended their dance title for the first time without the benefit of a single move requiring a lift. Gregory, who ruptured a disk in his back five weeks ago, skated wearing a brace and sometimes was visibly in pain. Understandably, much of their spark was absent. If Gregory's back doesn't improve in the next month, their chances of a top-five finish at the Olympics are nil.

In the pairs competition, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, who won the bronze medal at the worlds last year, won their third national championship in four years, overcoming a fall and a muffed crossing jump in their freestyle program to beat Todd Waggoner and Gillian Wachsman. "We felt a little tired near the end," the diminutive Watson said, citing the altitude and that they were able to get so little sleep between programs.

Denver's organizing committee had scheduled the events not with the skaters in mind, but rather television and the potential gate. The pairs, always a crowd favorite, were the sacrificial lambs. "That will change in the future," says influential coach Ron Ludington, whose top pair, Wayne and Natalie Seybold, booked themselves a trip to Calgary by finishing third.

The men's competition got off to a spectacular start and then sort of snoozed to a conclusion. Boitano, a San Franciscan who has been working with Toronto choreographer Sandra Bezic since April, earned near-perfect marks for composition and style—eight 6.0's and a single 5.9—in a dramatic short program that was a radical and welcome departure from his days as a self-described "technical robot." Wearing a vest and a billowing high-collared shirt straight out of 18th-century France, Boitano wowed the audience with a crackling, confident interpretation of a scene from Meyerbeer's ballet Les Patineurs (The Skaters). The highlight came when Boitano, skating the role of the arrogant show-off, landed a triple-double combination, then seamlessly wiped his skate blade with his fingers and flicked the snow back over his shoulder. The performance brought the crowd to its feet.

"I would like to skate this exact program in Calgary," he said afterward. The self-effacing Boitano credited Bezic with creating his exciting new on-ice persona. "I had a hard time pretending I was arrogant," he said. "I had to practice it every day."

Boitano also announced that his coach, Linda Leaver, had finally prevailed upon him not to try his quadruple toe loop in his freestyle program, either at the nationals or at the Olympics. "I want it in, she wants it out," Boitano said. Said Leaver, "This performance just reinforces my opinion that he can get 6.0's without the quad."

Can he ever. In Friday night's freestyle competition, Boitano proved he can get 6.0's without even landing a triple axel. Some observers suggested he could even have pulled in some perfect marks had he just stood at center ice and scowled into the stands for 4½ minutes. Don't blame Boitano—he wasn't doing the scoring. For that matter, even the judges might be forgiven at that hour of the morning.

Boitano had eaten his training meal at 5 p.m., thinking he would go to the arena four hours later and probably skate by 10 p.m. Meanwhile the pairs short program was creeping along, delayed by a scoreboard snafu and the interminable heaving of flowers onto the ice following each and every performance. Hugging, kissing.... Was this supposed to be a sporting event or a rehearsal for a gala tribute to Merlin Olsen? (Starting in 1989 the U.S. Figure Skating Association will ban the sale of flowers in the host building for the nationals.) The evening was further extended by idiotic skating routines featuring the Campbell Soup Kids and the cretinous Rocky Raccoon, who was, believe it or not, the official mascot of the nationals.

Bezic, arriving at McNichols early, immediately called Boitano at the hotel to tell him things were running late. At 10 p.m. Leaver called the arena to find out how far into the program they were. It was proceeding so slowly she could hardly believe her ears. Finally, at 11 p.m., she and Boitano left the hotel and arrived at the rink, still an hour and a half early.

"He wasn't uptight at all," said Leaver. "He was flat."

Flat? Boitano was yawning just moments before he skated. "I got hypoglycemic before I went on," he said. "The joke among the skaters was that we were all going to have breakfast after the performance."

Everyone skated under the same circumstances, so no one made excuses. But what a shame. These athletes train six to seven hours a day for years—in many ways they give up their youth—for a few shining moments in the spotlight. All the 11,000 or so fans who were left in McNichols—out of a crowd that had been a sellout 15,869—wanted to do by the time the final five men took the ice was turn off the spotlight and go to sleep. With the exception of Paul Wylie, a 23-year-old Harvard sophomore and the surprising second-place finisher, none of the men skated well. Boitano, wearing epaulets and skating to the dramatic theme from the movie Napoleon, touched his hand down twice—once on a triple axel and again on a triple loop—and left out the second triple axel in his program. He might have met his Waterloo had he tried the quad.

Normally Mr. Consistency, Boitano was numb afterward, apologizing to Bezic as he left the ice. "I haven't made two mistakes in this program in six months. Not in 12 months," he said later. "One good thing about it is it releases me from everybody thinking I'm so perfect."

You wouldn't have known it by looking at the scores: straight 5.9's for technical merit and, incredibly, a perfect 6.0 for composition and style, courtesy of California judge Sherie Grimson. Purfection took on a hole knew meening. (Give that man a 6.0 for spelling.) The crowd had the good sense to boo. The sad thing about Grimson's overly generous score is that it belittled the eight 6.0's Boitano had earned the night before, which were merited.

The nicest moment of the evening came at the bitter end: 1:06 a.m., as the medals were being awarded. Wylie, who in six previous nationals had finished fourth, 11th and fifth four times, received his silver medal from the president of the U.S.F.S.A., Hugh Graham, a fellow Harvard man. Graham handed the popular Wylie his hard-earned prize, which represented a trip to the Olympics, and said simply, " Veritas." An unlikely but fitting moment for Harvard's motto.

The big question on the women's side was whether Debi Thomas, who has taken a leave of absence from Stanford and has been training in Boulder, Colo., since July in preparation for the Olympics, could regain her title from defending champ Jill Trenary. The answer was resounding: Look out Katarina Witt, here I come.

Thomas, too, has added a choreographer to her entourage. Two of them, in fact, with name recognition to boot: Mikhail Baryshnikov and former American Ballet Theatre dancer George de la Peña, who starred in the movie Nijinsky. While visiting New York last summer, Thomas worked for an hour with Baryshnikov on her new freestyle program. His pal De la Peña took it from there when Thomas returned to Colorado.

"George has gotten me to open up on the ice rather than just going from jump to jump," says Thomas, whose long program is based on the opera Carmen. Says De la Pe‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a, "I tell her, 'If you feel something on the ice, even if you're scared, show it.' I'm trying to bring out some of the aspects of Carmen—her fearlessness, her joy—that are already in Debi."

After a slow start last week in the compulsory figures, Thomas told her coach, Alex McGowan, she had wobbled because she had been nervous. Said McGowan, "You can't win an Olympic championship by being nervous. I don't want a wimp out there. You skated like a jelly bean."

Such language would cause most of the fragile flowers of figure skating to dry out like petals in the sun. Not Thomas, who chews up such rhetoric for lunch. She skated off with the next two figures to win the compulsories, then outperformed Trenary and Caryn Kadavy to win the short program on Friday. Still, any one of the three could have won the championship in Saturday night's freestyle.

The great debate in the minutes leading up to the freestyle was whether friends of Thomas's from northern California should present her with a 49ers jersey and a good luck card that had been signed by members of the team. The Niners had just been destroyed by the Vikings, and Trenary is a native Minnesotan. Wisely, the decision was to wait.

Skating after Trenary, who was virtually flawless, landing four triples, Thomas slapped hands with McGowan, turned and gave the crowd a show. Executing a difficult triple-triple in the first 15 seconds of her program—only one of the top men, bronze medalist Christopher Bowman, had done a triple-triple cleanly—Thomas flirted and wooed and conveyed the spirit of Carmen as the vivacious temptress. She landed four triples in all, leaving out one that had been planned, and skated with both power and grace.

"That triple-triple is so important to my program," she said. "It's my first move, I'm totally focused on it, and if I hit it, I feel I can do almost anything."

But De la Peña sees greater things ahead. "She can go further with that program," he said. "Just watch."

When the card and 49ers jersey—D. Thomas, 16—were finally presented to Thomas by McGowan, she peered at the signatures, half amazed. "I didn't even know they knew I existed," she said. Then, thinking back to two years ago, when the 49ers lost to the Giants in the playoffs and she won her first nationals and eventually beat Witt for the world title, she said, "Every time they lose, I win."

"Yeah! To Minnesota," said Trenary, who edged out Kadavy to finish in second place.

On the ice, though, if not the gridiron, the San Franciscans were still champs.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThomas, both balletic and powerful, served notice that she will be a force in Calgary. TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERWhile others were busy picking up flowers, Boitano occupied himself by collecting 6.0's. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGETrenary's four triples weren't enough to keep Thomas from recapturing the title. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERAn also-ran in six previous nationals, Harvard man Wylie surprisingly struck silver. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWatson and Oppegard beat a tough duo: fatigue and altitude.

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)