THE EUROPEAN figure skating championships had concluded a day
earlier. Now, down on the ice, the exhibition gala for the top
finishers was rolling into its second hour, and the skaters were
offering up the usual assortment of routines. There were the
boy-meets-girl bits favored by the pairs skaters, the
rock-and-roll sketches done by the bare-chested men's stars, the
classical programs of the stylists -- all different, but all so
bereft of showy jumps that they called to mind stripped-down
Cadillacs left atop cement blocks.
Then Surya Bonaly of France took the ice as if sling-shot
arena tunnel, and for the next four minutes she held nothing back.
She tossed out seven triple jumps, two triple-double combinations
and two acrobatic moves banned from competition -- a backflip and
a handspring. She did all that plus some spins and blade-flashing
footwork, all set to music that conjured up visions of violin bows
dancing, kettledrummers hunched over their labors and cellists
sawing at their strings.
It was frenetic and even a little crazy in that the world
championships were four weeks away and Bonaly, who had just won
her fifth straight European title, was doing this optional
performance despite a broken toe on her right foot and a strained
right calf that caused her to limp.
Then, as suddenly as Bonaly had started, she was through. She
dramatically spiked a toe pick into the ice and tossed her head
back. The capacity crowd in Dortmund, Germany, sat silent.
March 6, 1995
Then the applause began, tepidly. From somewhere far off in the
darkened rafters, one lonely bouquet of flowers spiraled down.
Depending upon the beholder, Surya Bonaly is the most gifted
athletic figure skater in the world today, or she is a unique but
squandered talent whose career seems destined to stall at also-ran
status if she fails to win her first world championship in
Birmingham, England, starting March 6.
At 21 Bonaly already has an enviable resume. She could match
record of six European titles held by Sonja Henie and Katarina
Witt if she ignores the siren call of the pro tours through next
year. She was second at the 1994 world championships in Chiba,
Japan -- though she curdled that achievement by initially refusing
to take the podium for the awards ceremony, then ripping off her
silver medal to protest what she considered a hometown decision
for Yuka Sato.
In her two Olympic trips Bonaly finished fifth in Albertville
'92 and fourth in Lillehammer in '94. But she scuttled her medal
chances in Albertville by ignoring her coach and attempting --
but failing -- to land a quadruple, a four-revolution jump no
woman has ever completed in competition.
With Sato, '94 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul and runner-up
Nancy Kerrigan all skating as pros, Bonaly and Chen Lu of China
are the top contenders for the 1995 world title. But ask almost
anyone of the skating cognoscenti -- including some of Bonaly's
advisers -- who will win if both women skate cleanly, and the
reply is Chen Lu.
``I'm genuinely fond of Surya, but they'd take Chen Lu because
there's just too much bad rap, too much bad publicity, too much
bad talk about Surya that's gone by,'' says Michelle Kwan's coach,
Frank Carroll, one of Bonaly's sometime mentors. ``And, you know,
it's always the but that does her in: `Surya's a great jumper,
but. . . .' `Surya is a good skater who jumps well, but. . . .'
With Chen Lu, it's just, `She's a beautiful skater.' ''
Everyone prefaces their remarks about Bonaly by saying she's a
sweet, hardworking kid. Then the haymakers start whistling in: She
lacks artistic refinement. She's a sore loser. History will forget
her unless she wins the worlds or Olympics. She and her
omnipresent mother flub the big things (the '92 Olympics, for
instance, and their refusal to enlist a full-time coach after
that), and they evince godawful taste in hairstyling, costumes,
music and choreography. Plus, they don't play the game by
kowtowing to judges and skating officials -- or, as French TV
skating analyst Paul Peret puts it, by ``making smiles when there
are no smiles inside you.''
Yet few of the shortfalls are seen as Surya's fault. Within
the skating community Surya is seen as the victim
of her domineering mother, Suzanne, a phys-ed teacher
who dabbles in Taoism and Zen. She has near-total control
of her daughter's training, which she moved to a remote resort in
the French Alps after their disaster in Albertville. Suzanne
insists on being intimately involved in Surya's career despite
criticism that she's about as helpful as a set of leg irons.
In the last year the Bonalys' relations with the French
federation became so strained that the federation shopped Surya to
six coaches, five of whom said they would be happy to take her if
Suzanne stayed out of the rink. The Bonalys say they were never
consulted about any of this. When Surya decided to bolt for a
quick payday on the pro tour -- reasoning that she could apply
for 1998 Olympic reinstatement as Baiul plans to do -- French
officials countered with a warning: go now and we won't support
your application to come back. She didn't turn pro.
``It cost Surya about $800,000,'' her agent, Michael Rosenberg,
What's so bad about Suzanne Bonaly? Carlo Fassi, the coach who
guided Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Olympic gold, grins and
replies, ``You remember what Newt Gingrich's mother said about
Hillary Clinton, don't you?''
``It's a scandal,'' says French team director Didier
Bonaly's first coach, who worked with her for nine years. ``I have
seen [Suzanne] yell. Miss the program, she slaps her. Hits her in
the face with hockey sticks.''
Hockey sticks? Surya, sitting on a bed in her hotel room in
Dortmund, breaks into high-pealed laughter when told of
Gailhaguet's charges. Then she translates the allegation into
French and giggles again as her mother gasps, ``No, no. . . . Oh,
no. You're joking!''
Sitting forward, her eyes wide and imploring now, Suzanne says,
``This is not true, this is not true!' ''
Even in figure skating, a sport in which reputations are
taken on the equivalent of a Mafia limo ride, Gailhaguet's remarks
were extraordinary, coming as they did at the halfway mark of the
European ladies' competition, coming from a man who should be
willing to do anything to ensure Bonaly's success. But how
seriously do the allegations deserve to be taken? Gailhaguet,
later in the same conversation, volunteered that he knowingly
fabricated many details of Surya's upbringing after she burst onto
the world scene in 1990. Also, no one seconds Gailhaguet's claims
about Suzanne Bonaly hitting her daughter -- not Carroll, not
Fassi, who once shared a California training center with the
Bonalys for three months, and not French national team skaters
Philippe Candeloro and Stephane Bernardis. ``It is not true,''
And yet in the strange, fanciful, sometimes murky tale of Surya
Bonaly's life, anything seems possible at any time. . . .
Before Gailhaguet discovered Surya as a 10-year-old clomping
around a rink in Nice, he had never coached a skater of her
caliber. And he hasn't since. It was Gailhaguet who talked the
Bonalys into moving to Paris so Surya, already a world-class
tumbling champion, could begin advanced skating lessons. And it
was Gailhaguet who, with Suzanne Bonaly, presided over Surya's
career until their bitter parting after the Albertville Olympics.
French hopes for Bonaly were high in Albertville. She had been
chosen to give the athletes' oath, an Olympic pin had been made in
her honor, and couturier Christian Lacroix had been enlisted to
design her skating dress. Her pyrotechnical program and the sight
of her rich black skin against the glazed white ice would have
been enough to make her an unforgettable figure. But there was
more. By then the exotic storyline about Bonaly's upbringing had
been embroidered upon and circulated. The press was told Surya had
been abandoned as an infant by her biological parents on Reunion,
a French island off the coast of Madagascar. Some reports said
she was found lying on a coconut-strewn beach.
``Not true and not true,'' Gailhaguet says.
Surya's birth certificate indicates that she was born in
on Reunion. She was adopted at the age of eight months by Suzanne
and Georges Bonaly, a draftsman who now stays behind in Paris,
working his government job and tending to Surya's schedule. The
Bonalys, who are white, asked for a nonwhite baby because ``they
are the babies no one takes,'' Suzanne says.
It is true that Surya's mother educated her at home. And
is fond of Taoism and Zen. (Surya usually draws a yin-yang symbol
next to her autograph ``to let people know I am about more than
the skating life.'') But the story that Surya was reared on a
macrobiotic diet that included birdseed? The tale that her hair,
which her mom braided into a bullrope-thick ponytail for
competitions, had never been cut at the time of the '92 Games?
``The hair story was true,'' Surya says.
``It was a weave, a hairpiece,'' says an American skating
who was on several exhibition tours with the Bonalys.
When asked who came up with all the fanciful stories,
says, ``I made them up.'' Why? ``The journalists loved it,''
Gailhaguet says. ``They wrote that [Reunion] thing like crazy.
Because that's what you want to hear, no? It's a good story. . . .
Reunion, it was just an idea I had at the moment. . . . We did
that together, me and the mother. We said Surya came from Nice,
but the [biological] parents came from Reunion. Really, we had no
So why did he pick Reunion?
``I just always wanted to go there,'' Gailhaguet says with a
There is always loopy calliope music playing in the
any story about the Bonalys. Before Surya arrived, the Bonalys
liked to hop in their small car and spend their monthlong holiday
driving to far-flung places like Finland, Norway -- even India.
``Four times to India,'' Suzanne says. ``We had no money to fly,
so we would drive all day, all night. Through Pakistan,
Afghanistan. Sleep in the car. Fourteen days of this to get to
India. Oh, it was so nice.''
Before Surya's career took off, the Bonalys drove to European
competitions in a camper so they could save money on hotels, fix
their meals and bring their menagerie. Though now down to three
dogs, the Bonalys once had five, all Great Danes. One of Surya's
early exhibition programs featured poodles and doves. ``That was
during the gulf war,'' Surya explains. ``Doves to symbolize
Peret, the French TV correspondent, remembers filming an
in a Leningrad hotel room once and being distracted by ``this
strange noise -- `Bbblb-bblb-blb-bla, bbblb-bblb-blb-bla. . . .'
Finally I realized Surya had smuggled a damn bird all the way to
As animal stories go, nothing tops the Bonalys' tale of an
adventure near Carroll's training center in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
Suzanne and Surya had risen early to take a drive and soak in the
mountain scenery. When they came upon a bear lying motionless in
the road, Suzanne leaped out and began administering CPR.
Surya, howling with laughter now, demonstrates how her mother
pounded on the bear's chest with two crossed hands. ``I was still
in the car, thinking, Oh my god, oh my god,'' Surya says. ``Then I
finally said, `Mama. . . . Oh, Mama? What if this bear wakes up?'
At times like that, when Surya and Suzanne are laughing and
tears from their eyes, they seem utterly devoted to each other.
The two are constant companions, often finishing each other's
sentences. Surya acknowledges the attempts to break them up, but
says it will never happen because ``though we are two, we are like
While Surya is a 5'3", 105-pound ball of tightly wound muscle,
Suzanne stands nearly six feet tall, is as thin as a rawhide
shoelace and is just as tough. Suzanne's craggy features, short
curtain of bangs and habit of pursing her lips and clamming up
when she's perturbed -- silence gathering until it's unbearable --
dovetail with her image as an eccentric Svengali.
But is she really an ogre or just a doting mother who is in
her head? And what of Surya? Is she ``stupid,'' as Gailhaguet
says, because she might have been the best ever? Or does she, at
the age of 21, stay the course with her mother because ``I think
it is fate that brought us together; I fell on a good family''?
Surya and Suzanne have made grievous career blunders, but
their assessments of those who criticize them are deadly accurate.
The world of skating is a hidebound and venal place. This is a
sport full of illusions -- civility on the medal podium and
competitors sucker-punching one another behind the scenes. Skating
wants ladies' champions to look like artful ballerinas but lunge
into triple jumps like predators.
But Suzanne Bonaly doesn't equivocate. She says, ``I like the
And Surya says, ``In other sports they don't care how you run.
You're faster, and that's it. It's not about your dress.''
The Bonalys, rather than being idiots or ogres, seem like
who tasted public life and the subjectivity and politics of their
sport. Then they recoiled, retreated, withdrew -- into insolence.
Into stubbornness. To their hideaway in the Alps.
At times the Bonalys' tone is confessional. They admit mistakes
but not regrets. Surya says, ``Maybe it is better to have things
this way. It makes us strong.''
Of their public image, Suzanne says, ``When somebody is
different, people like to talk about them. But we are just simple
people. Very shy, very private. Some like to go to the reception,
and some like to go into the forest. But if we have a choice, we
prefer to walk in the forest. Skating is not often a nice place.
But this is life.''
``So we must adapt,'' Suzanne says.
``In the mind you stay the same,'' says Surya. ``But you change
the appearance. The outside.''
Then, though you might prefer the forest, you and your mother
attend the French federation's reception following the European
championships, smiling self-consciously when the champagne corks
stop popping and the waiters carrying hors d'oeuvres trays pause,
and the crowd -- recognizing that you've arrived -- begins to clap
and backpedal until a horseshoe of empty space is left for you,
the champion, to glide into and fill.
Smiles hang on everyone's face. All the knives are sheathed.
it is no surprise -- no surprise at all, really -- that Didier
Gailhaguet is among the first to step forward and take Surya
Bonaly's hand and kiss her once on the cheek.