GREAT SKATES

America's Brian Boitano gave the performance of his life to defeat that other Brian
February 29, 1988

One wanted to win; one wanted to skate his very best. One wanted a place in history; the other a place, however small, in his countrymen's hearts. One left no stone unturned in his pursuit of glory; the other was careful not to kick over too many stones during the quest, so that he might recognize himself when all was said and done. Two Brians, quite different people, each graciously carrying the gold medal hopes of an entire country. They gave the Olympics and figure skating a week of sport-drama that many won't soon forget.

In the end, which was on Saturday night during the free skating, it came down to a bobble. Not a fall. Not even a stumble. After all the weeks of rhetoric and buildup, of interviews and comparisons between the two Brians, the gold medal slipped away from Canada's Brian Orser when he bobbled a jump called a triple flip. It was the sort of mistake that Scott Hamilton had made two or three times four years ago in Sarajevo, and he had still hung on—to beat Orser—for the gold. Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins—who had ever, until now, skated her or his very best under the white-hot pressure of the Olympics? One lousy bobble and—poof—four years of working and waiting and training go up in smoke. Because that bobble by Orser was all Brian Boitano needed to win over five of the nine judges and give the U.S.—yes, he said he would share it—its first gold medal of the Calgary Games. It shouldn't have been that close. Boitano skated the performance of a lifetime.

Boitano was the first up among the final group of six skaters—a bit of luck, since that was his favorite spot in the draw. For the first time all week every seat in the Saddledome was occupied. He warmed up with celerity—Boitano's choreographer, Sandra Bezic, worried he was moving too quickly, but she hugged him and said, "It's your moment, show them your soul." Then he waited for the other skaters to clear the ice, tying and retying his skates under the supportive eye of his coach, Linda Leaver, who had been waiting for this moment since Boitano was eight. They didn't say anything in these final minutes before he skated—Leaver and Boitano communicate half the time without speaking, anyway.

There is approximately a nine-second pause between the start of Boitano's music, the theme from the movie Napoleon, and the time he makes his first move. In that pause Boitano blots out the crowd. Skates, ice, program. Those are the only things he focuses on when he performs. Some figure skaters "work a room," as they say, picking out a face or a number of faces in the audience and making eye contact with them. Brian Orser is a master at it. Some skaters—Debi Thomas is one—get their energy from the spectators' reactions. But Boitano is best when he skates as if the arena were empty, when it is just Boitano and the ice and the character he is trying to portray, which in this case was an officer in Napoleon's army. "I kept looking at his face to see if he was in character, which is when I really knew he was on," said Bezic, who had to browbeat Boitano for weeks before he could assume an arrogant air.

Oh, he was on, all right, nailing a 'Tano Triple (a Lutz with one arm over his head, the other cupped away from his body) and then a triple Axel-double toe loop combination in the opening moments of his program. He sandwiched a camel spin a carpenter could have used as a level between two more triples, then did a spectacular death drop in which he nearly kicked a hole in the ceiling of the Saddledome. Next came his triple flip-triple toe combination, the most difficult move in his program, which he landed with such ease that he said "it felt like angels were lifting me and spinning me." This was Brian Boitano the technician, whose precise and powerful jumps are the envy of the sport. But there was something new here, something few among the judges or the crowd had ever seen in him before. He was emoting. A gasp could be heard during his fabulous spread eagle, in which, canting backward at a harrowing angle, he carved a wide, slow circle on the outside edges of his blades. He never missed a subtlety or a beat. And when, in a final flourish, he landed a double Axel, then an Arabian, violently shaking his head and fists in conclusion, it was clear to everyone in the building that, well, this was the best that he could skate.

Some thought it was more than that. "It was the best performance I'd ever seen any skater skate," said Paul Wylie, the American who finished 10th overall. "I was going nuts."

"I did it. I did it," Boitano kept saying, first hugging one of his friends, Lisa Schoeller, and then Leaver and Bezic. "That was it, that was my competition, I'm done," he said, beaming, as he came off the ice. Later he remembered: "I wasn't thinking gold or anything. I had done what I came to do."

Which is why he wasn't even watching as, two skaters later, Orser bobbled on his triple flip. Skaters nearly always watch their competition after they have finished, but Boitano sat alone in the dressing room, wiped off his blades, packed his carrying bag and listened to a tape on a Walkman. A few minutes later, U.S. teammate Christopher Bowman told him he had won the gold medal. Gold, silver—it really didn't matter to him, because he knew that he had skated his best. Not tried to skate his best: he'd actually done so. If the judges still liked Orser better, well, there was nothing he could do about it. Such is the nature of a subjective sport like skating. The only real battle is with oneself.

Besides the bobble, though, there was one other flaw in Orser's program that made the judging a mite easier. It came near the end as Orser, tiring, decided to turn his final triple Axel into a double. It was a minor thing, but in many small ways his exhaustion was visible. The snap and the energy that, at his best, set Orser apart from all others were strangely absent at the end of his freestyle program, sapped, perhaps, by months and months of gold medal hype. "It's hard to say," he said afterward. "I trained very well. I'm in ideal shape. But I guess a lot of it has to do with the pressure that I was feeling before I even started skating."

The pressure on the two of them had been intense all week, exacerbated by the fact that, at the time of their showdown Saturday night, the United States and Canada had a grand total of two bronze medals and a silver between them. The two Brians chose to deal with the pressure in very different ways. Orser had a support staff around him the size of the Danish Olympic team, including a coach, a sports psychologist, a p.r. director, a financial adviser and a rolfer—a masseuse who not only massaged Orser's muscles but actually attempted to realign them. Orser also has a nutritionist and a costume designer who were not in Calgary.

Boitano, by contrast, had only Leaver and Bezic. Asked if, for her Brian, she was all those other people rolled into one, Leaver lightly responded, "I certainly don't tell him what to eat." Boitano himself addressed the matter of an entourage with this gentle dig: "I have tried sports psychologists before, but I find they can't tell you anything you can't tell yourself. If you step on the ice and think, I've sacrificed sugar for a year, have been drinking concoctions I don't like—all for this one performance, it just puts more pressure on you."

Pressure, pressure, pressure. The word kept coming up, partly because of Orser's past reputation of choking at big competitions—a reputation he had successfully rebutted with a flawless performance at the 1987 world championships, in which he had taken the men's title from Boitano. And the pressure had a visible effect on Boitano, too. Normally garrulous and accessible, he cut off all media interviews except mandatory press conferences. "'I remember in Sarajevo Scott Hamilton tried to accommodate everybody, and he ended up not skating his best," Boitano said shortly before the competition started. "I'm focused enough to know what my job is." He even tried to avoid watching the Olympics on the tube, which was difficult because he was in an eight-man suite with the other male skaters on the U.S. team. ABC kept promoting the forthcoming Battle of the Brians. "I kept telling the rookies to turn that television off!" Boitano said.

On Wednesday, during the compulsory figures, which accounted for 30% of the scoring, 12 members of Orser's family scattered about the arena, hiding behind spectators so that Brian O wouldn't see them. "That's something new here," admitted Orser, "only because when I see my family I want to skate so well it sometimes backfires."

Each time Orser stepped on the ice to skate one of his three figures, Peter Jensen, his sports psychologist, repeated, "Just you and the figure," a phrase that had worked well during their pre-Olympic simulated run-throughs. Every step of the day was carefully planned. Orser listened to relaxation tapes after the first figure, and sat and watched the Olympic flame in McMahon Stadium after the second. Orser, whose seventh-place finish in figures cost him the gold in Sarajevo, skated well. He finished third to the Soviet's Alexander Fadeev and to Boitano, who clinched second with a final figure so perfect that Leaver came out onto the ice to photograph it when the compulsories were over. Teetering on the ice in her heels, she gushed, "That's the best figure I've ever seen in competition." As she pointed out the subtleties, face flushed with pride, one couldn't help thinking that here, etched in the ice, was the product of her 16 years of coaching: a perfect figure in the Olympic Games from a skater who had once been an awkward eight-year-old. "That makes my week," she said and meant it, though there was very much more to come.

In Thursday's short program, Orser skated first among the leaders and gave a marvelous, energetic performance that brought the crowd to its feet. It seemed, at the time, an omen that this competition would belong to the host country's Brian, particularly when Boitano skated a mistake-free but cautious program that was good for second place. When Boitano is on, he skates his short with the attitude of an arrogant boy on a pond, cocksure and showy. But on this night he was very much the careful technician. "He did exactly what I wanted," insisted Leaver. "He skated clean. Maybe in his head he was skipping to the next jump, but in the short, they nail you if you make a mistake. It's O.K. to be cautious."

Fadeev, who was world champion in 1985, was indeed nailed when he fell on his combination jump. He finished a dismal ninth in his short, a showing that eventually cost him the bronze medal, which was won by his countryman Viktor Petrenko.

The night clearly belonged to Orser, the 26-year-old from Orillia, Ont., but while on the surface everything was sweetness and light between the two Brians—they posed for pictures arm-in-arm, thumbs-up—Orser took this snipe at Boitano's style: "What's really neat is that we both skated our best, and after all the hype about Boitano's new artistic side, what put me ahead was my artistic marks. I seem to be skating well under pressure."

"I was dying for my Brian to say he could have skated better than he did," said Bezic later that evening. "Because he was better at the U.S. Nationals last month. He's got to be magical on Saturday."

And that is exactly what Boitano was. Pure magic or fantasy or whatever is the stuff of dreams. "I had been told as a child that no one ever skated their best in an Olympic performance," Boitano said afterward, cradling the gold. "My dream was to change that, to prove it didn't have to be that way. I would have hated to win the gold medal with anything but my best."

For his part, Orser wanted that gold medal any way he could get it—best, worst, or indifferent—and he thought, when he first skated off the ice, that, despite the triple flip, he might have won it. "I had no idea how Brian Boitano had skated," he said, "and when the second marks came up, I still thought maybe I'd done it." No Canadian man had ever won the singles competition in the Olympics, and he wanted to be the first. Besides, Orser knew what the silver felt like and, both blessed and cursed by a champion's mentality and pride, silver didn't do it for him. "I came in here with one and only one thing in mind," he said. "And that was to leave here with the gold medal. Life goes on. I don't feel I have to apologize for anything. I gave it a good shot."

It is tempting to say that they brought out the best in each other, but in fact it was Orser who brought out the best in Boitano. Boitano owes him for that. Orser pushed Boitano to a level that he otherwise might not have attained, and as he did so, the two of them elevated the level of the entire sport. It happens that way sometimes—and it could happen again next month in the world championships in Budapest—but there is something extra special when it happens in the Olympic Games. "All week I'd been seeing bobsledders and lugers who told me, 'Come on, you've got to win the gold for us,' " said Boitano, a 24-year-old from the San Francisco area. "And you really do feel that it's the whole country's medal, that you're sharing it with everyone. I've never been so proud to be an American."

PHOTOMANNY MILLANBoitano (left) was technically brilliant and dramatic. Orser (above) fell just short. PHOTOSTEVE FENN/ABC[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERIt was a riveting drama for coach Leaver (above) and the proud choreographer, Bezic. PHOTOMANNY MILLANBezic told Boitano to show the crowd his soul, and when it was over he knew he'd done just that. PHOTOSTEVE FENN/ABCAn elated Boitano gave his freestyle program a confident thumbs-up and was right on target. PHOTOMANNY MILLANOrser said the unremitting pressure may have cost him the winning edge. TWO PHOTOSRICHARD MACKSONBoitano's higher marks—five 5.9s—for technical merit tipped the balance in his favor... TWO PHOTOS...but Orser tightened things up with his numbers (bottom row) for composition and for style. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe Stars and Stripes finally got a welcome lift, courtesy of Boitano. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

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)