Late again. Christopher Bowman, the 22-year-old heartthrob of American figure skating, national men's champion, successor to Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton, second in the world championships in 1989, charmer, clown and unrelenting gadabout—is late again for practice.
Not terribly late. A few minutes, no more. Still, his coach, Frank Carroll, who has taught, cajoled, threatened and occasionally throttled Bowman, and stuffed him into a trash can, and, barely, survived his 17 years of coaching him, is not amused. "You see, this is the sort of thing I mean," Carroll says. "We have 45 minutes of private ice. Christopher has only had to walk 100 yards to get here. And let's see how long it takes before he finally is ready to skate. I don't see total commitment from Christopher. I'm not sure he's dedicated enough to be one of the alltime greats."
Bowman, stretching on the warmup bar, knows that Carroll is discussing him and mugs like a schoolboy behind the principal's back. He makes the sort of face that is almost impossible to resist, conspiratorial in nature, guilt-free, disrespectful in a fun-loving way and full of the devil. It is not an expression one expects to see on a world-class athlete, but in a seventh-grade study hall it would bring down the house.
Bowman has not skated in five weeks, and he has exactly one month left before he defends his national title in Salt Lake City. Plenty of time, plenty of time. He is about five pounds overweight, not unusual for him at this time of year, but it is Carroll's pet peeve. He is short of stamina from his layoff, hasn't touched a barbell in months, has avoided his dance classes like the plague and on top of it all is suffering from a cold he picked up two nights earlier while traipsing around Lake Arrowhead, Calif.—which is where he trains—in search of a tow truck after his car had skidded off an icy road. "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" is how he describes the mishap.
February 12, 1990
"O.K., now the training starts," he says theatrically, as he puts a cassette into the tape machine and takes the ice 10 minutes after the appointed hour. "Now we get serious."
Wrongggg. The driving beat of Your Momma Don't Dance ("...and your daddy don't rock and roll") begins to reverberate, full-blast, through the arena. Another coach, another skater, smile. Bowman, boogying around the ice, grins.
Carroll, smoldering, turns off the music and scowls. He is thinking: Where is Linda Fratianne when I need her? Carroll coached Fratianne from 1970 to 1980, and she was a perfect angel of a pupil. Always on time. Respectful, sweet and a national champion to boot. What had he done to deserve this?
Carroll switches tapes, putting on the music for Bowman's short program, a piece that is meant to suggest an Indian war dance. "It sounds like an Indian with a hatchet in his hand," Carroll says dryly, "which is sort of like Christopher's personality."
Two hours later, Carroll throws the national men's champion off the ice for talking with another skater during the workout and then making an impertinent remark. "No more arguing with him," Carroll sighs. "No spooning him pabulum. If he doesn't want to train, he can take his skates off. I'm not going to hold his hand. Christopher is a wonderful person, has great personality and can charm the skin off a snake. But to get him out on a day-to-day basis, to get improvement from him, to get him to love what he's doing is sheer hell. There's no doubt he's the most talented boy in the world, but he has an awful lot to sort out."
One of the things Bowman could start with is why he should change his footloose, happy-go-lucky ways when, to date, they have served him so well. Finishing second to Canada's Kurt Browning—he of the quadruple revolutions—in the 1989 world championships in Paris is not exactly the Ice Follies. Especially in light of the fact that when they met again last October, Bowman beat Browning in the Skate America competition. Much as coaches hate to admit it—and Carroll does—some kids are practice skaters whose legs turn to noodles in front of 13,000 people. Others, like Bowman (Debi Thomas is another), can't seem to get their laces tied properly until the spotlight hits them. Then—zap!—they are transformed into, as Bowman puts it, "a Hans Brinker from hell."
"He loves being the star, being the center of attention," says Carroll, "and he's great under pressure. You just wish he trained a little harder. For years people have told me how wonderful he is, because he has that quality that brings people out of their seats. But there's something missing."
"If I came into this arena right now, with none of my students around," says Carroll, "I'd turn on the lights, put on some music and skate around looking like a fool, because, at age 50, I still love to skate. Christopher wouldn't."
He doesn't live it. He doesn't have figure skating in his soul. Bowman has heard the criticism before. During the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, in which he finished seventh, ABC announcer Dick Button tweaked him over the air, saying, "He's a little too busy chasing Frisbees—and bikinis—on the beaches of Malibu."
"You're right, Dick, I'm a human being," responds Bowman, who believes that "eating and breathing figure skating morning, noon and night is fine for a few minutes. I mean, who cares if you arrive at the rink early and turn on the lights? Who really cares? Not the judges. Not the audience. It doesn't matter how many days I've worked as long as I feel in my heart I have what it takes to do my best right here and right now. The bottom line is the performance."
Figure skaters approach a competition in one of three ways. They dread it, out of fear of failure. Or they prepare, prepare, prepare for it, in the conviction that when their time comes to take center stage, muscle memory will prove more potent than nervousness, hot flashes and terror. Or they embrace it the same way a thespian—or in Bowman's case, a vaudevillian—embraces a performance, for figure skating is equal parts athletics and theater, a blend that is unique in all of sport.
Bowman is not the skating technician Boitano was; his form and body line are not quite as close to perfect. He doesn't have the nimble, energetic style that distinguished Hamilton. But no American skater has, or had, Bowman's on-ice flair and, well, chutzpah. He is a Broadway director's idea of a skater, a cross between Casanova and Bob Hope. In some respects Bowman resembles a masculine version of Katarina Witt: flirtatious, sensual, melodramatic—sometimes to the point of hokiness. He moves easily to music and maintains a body line that seems to flow across the ice without angles. However, Bowman lacks any trace of Witt's sophistication, often surrendering to the temptation to be a flagrant ham. He will unabashedly wave at the judges, wink at television cameras and occasionally even stick his tongue out at rinkside friends. During exhibitions he will literally climb into the stands bumping and grinding while teenage girls collapse at his skates. "He loves to shake his booty," says Carroll, "and he has that sultry sort of attitude and look that work well with Latin music. Frankly, I'd like to have his style more refined. Sometimes he makes a gesture and I think, Oh, vomit."
Don't look for Bowman to change anytime soon. "People say, 'Aren't you being just a little flip and flamboyant?' " he says. "But that's me out there. That's my personality. And deep down inside, I think that 92 percent of the judges like what I do."
He is a born performer, who has been gravitating toward center stage since he was five years old and first took to the ice. Near the Bowmans' home in Van Nuys, Calif., was a skating rink in a shopping mall. One day Joyce Bowman looked up to see her son, Christopher, sliding around the rink in his street shoes. He had seen a bunch of kids out there having fun and, being a self-assured only child and somewhat hyperactive besides, he figured he would join them. Eventually Joyce entered him in a tiny tots program to learn to skate. He was, to say the least, a natural. "Right from the start I was doing twirls and racing around," he says. "I was Christopher Bowman, ankle biter, in your face."
Within months he skated well enough to advance into the 17-and-older class. One minute he would be leading a parade of teenagers around the shopping mall ice, the next he would be sitting on the ice eating snow. The fit wasn't quite right, and Joyce was advised to find private instruction for her son. She had heard of a rink near their home, the Van Nuys Iceland, and one afternoon she dropped in to see if anyone there gave lessons. A young girl was on the ice, and Joyce had never seen such beautiful skating. She raved about the girl to a woman seated nearby. "Why, thank you. That's my daughter," Virginia Fratianne replied. Her coach, of course, was Carroll, and he agreed to take the precocious five-year-old Christopher on as a student.
"He was the most perfect looking kid I've ever seen," Carroll remembers, somewhat wistfully. "He looked like a doll. I literally had to teach him his left foot from his right foot, and when I'd get mad at him I'd pick him up and dump him in a trash can."
Carroll had plenty of opportunities to vent his wrath. Once there was too much water on the patch of ice on which Bowman was practicing his school figures, and Carroll gave his pupil a mop and a bucket and told him to get to work. A little girl had a dry patch of ice beside them, and Carroll, knowing the mischievous nature of young Christopher, looked at him and said, "Don't you dare." No sooner had Carroll gone inside to fetch a cup of coffee than he heard the girl scream. "Christopher had waited until she was leaning over, and then—swish—right up the backside with the wet mop. He was always seeking ways to get attention."
Bowman's parents—his father, Nelson, works for the transportation department of the city of Los Angeles—tried to get him interested in other activities: swimming, horseback riding. But he always came back to skating. At one point he begged his parents to buy him a piano. When they obliged, he sat down on the bench and expected to be able to play. When he discovered that he actually had to practice to make the thing produce anything even resembling music, he gave it up altogether.
Everything else in his life seemed to come so easily. It was pure fate that made him a child actor, a career he eventually put on hold to pursue skating. When he was eight months old, a television program called The Good Guys needed a couple of infants for the opening and closing credits. Friends of the Bowmans knew the producer, and—presto—for a year and a half, baby Christopher's doll-like face was regularly featured in prime time. Six years later a casting agent came across Bowman's name in his files and called Joyce to see if her son might be interested in doing commercials. Why not? It would help pay for skating lessons. So Bowman began by making a half dozen or so commercials a year and eventually landed a small part in an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
"Acting is the ultimate sport," he says. "You talk about competition—you haven't seen it until you've seen 500 kids and their mothers all crammed in the casting agent's office."
Small wonder his on-ice personality became known as Bowman the Showman. Lights, camera, action? Bring 'em on. While other skaters quaked and trembled at the prospect of performing in front of a crowd, this kid lit up like a Bowman candle. He won the World Junior championship when he was 15, and by 1986, when he was 18, he was the second-best amateur skater in the U.S., behind Boitano. At the 1987 world championships in Cincinnati, while Boitano and Brian Orser were battling for the world title, it was Bowman who brought the spectators out of their seats with a flawless and captivating long program.
By that time Bowman's reputation as a party boy and ladies' man was well established, if not legend. Skating groupies, a hitherto little known subspecies, followed him wherever he went. The figure skating establishment is notoriously conservative, but Carroll believes Bowman's behavior was never held against him and may actually have worked in his favor. "The men in the upper echelon of figure skating enjoy seeing someone who's a man's man, as it were, with an eye for the women. And the women in the sport enjoy flirting with Christopher and fantasizing about him." And you thought judging was easy?
Bowman, who was engaged for a time last year (it broke up partly because of his decision to appear on The Dating Game), claims to be settling down. His current love interest is another world-class figure skater whom he prefers not to name. Bowman's girl-in-every-port stage was, he says, something of a rebellion against the perception that all male figure skaters were gay. "I had a lot of anger when I was younger," he says. "I got harassed all the time by the hockey players. I was performing in a predominantly girls' sport, so what did that make me? Finally, I realized it was the hockey players who were living in a mudhole. While they were skating around after sweaty men from 10 till midnight, which is when they had the ice, I was out on a date."
But Bowman was angry about other things, too. He felt the long hours of figure skating practice kept him isolated from his peers. He wasn't allowed to talk on the ice, which ran counter to his outgoing nature. At varying intervals, Carroll would weigh his skaters every day, a practice that caused Bowman such stress that, to this day, he can barely talk about how much he weighs. (He is 5'10", 160 pounds.) "Parents and coaches never stop to think what kind of an impact this sort of competitive high-stress environment has on a child," he says. "I've known a couple of girls who have had breast reductions on the advice of their coaches. Why would they do that to their bodies? That's the sort of thing I rebelled against."
He never ate, slept and breathed figure skating, because there were many aspects of the sport that he didn't like. He recoiled from the idea of being known as Christopher Bowman, the figure skater. He loved the limelight, loved the attention, but he wanted an identity apart from the rink.
There was a time when he figured he could create that identity with symbols. The summer before the '88 Winter Games, Bowman moved out of his parents' house and had himself tattooed. He had a devil in diapers put on his left shoulder, above the inscription NOBODY'S PERFECT, and for his left wrist he chose a small heart adorned with a devil's horns and tail. He grew his hair long. He had both ears pierced and wore a red, a white and a blue earring in his left lobe on the theory that the color scheme would make it more palatable to the U.S. Figure Skating Association. "It was like I read the anarchist's cookbook on figure skating," Bowman says. "Conformity was not my ball game."
To the staid and homogeneous figure skating world this was radical stuff, and Carroll read Bowman the riot act. Eventually the earrings came off, though not the tattoos, and Bowman was in shape in time for the 1988 nationals and the Calgary Olympics. He moved back in with his parents, with whom he still lives, in part because of the money it would cost to keep his own apartment, and in part because, without his mother's prodding, Bowman has never seemed able to make it to his practices on time, if at all.
"Am I lazy?" Bowman says. "Absolutely. I'm lazy for an athlete, but I don't consider myself an athlete. I'm just an average guy who doesn't like to get out of bed at seven a.m. I don't like pain. I don't like to feel cold. I enjoy the sense of expression and achievement I get from my skating, but no one enjoys hard work."
He is, well, a different sort of champion: a 1990s skater with the attitude of a 1950s ballplayer. You think Mickey Mantle loved to practice? Bowman is a coach's nightmare and a spectator's dream. He is out there to perform—not for the judges, not for the sake of the sport, not even for himself—but for you. Without you, he wouldn't be there. He wants your approval.
"Some of my skating is 'artist emulator,' and some is Bowman the Showman," he says. "I'd be imagining myself as Baryshnikov or Alexander Godunov, some great artist, but there would always be Bowman the Showman on my shoulder telling me to stick out my tongue and do something crazy. I used to fight it, to try to just be the artist. But now I know that's part of me, part of Christopher Bowman, and always will be. I don't want to lose that. I think it's a gift."