Cashing In On The Collywobbles

Debi Thomas and Brian Boitano of the U.S. kept their cool and took the world figure skating titles from those who didn't.

Two kids grow up in neighboring towns in California's Silicon Valley. He's white, 22, the son of upper-middle-class parents (father: banker; mother: housewife). She's black, 18, a college student, her parents - a computer program manager and a program analyst - are divorced. They meet in Geneva and, asssisted by a veritable plague of collywobbles, dethrone a couple of Eastern-bloc world champions, including a beautiful villainess, and tip the figure skating world on its sit spin. And...No, no, they don't fall in love. America falls in love with them - a pair of refreshing first-time champs and a wonderful reminder that U.S. athletes are, well, damn good at upsets. And can occasionally even joke about it.

As in the scene last Saturday morning when Brian Boitano of Sunnyvale, California and Debi Thomas of nearby San Jose posed with their gold medals and a single orange gladiola. Thomas playfully pretended to offer the flower to the memory of Olympic gold medal winner and two-time world champion Katarina Witt's reign. Then, "No, no, I ake it back," the new world ladie's champion said, cringing, "I'll pay for that."

"No kidding," said Boitano, the men's champ. "Did you see Katarina during practice? It was, like, a miracle if you two ever made eye contact. 'Grrr. Get out of my way,'" he said, curling his lip. He concluded with a shudder, "You girls are ruthless."

Ruthlessly brilliant, perhaps, as was Boitano-though there is not a ruthless bone in his body-who launched himself from fourth place to the world title during the men's long program on Thursday night. This is an event so marred by tumbles- there were fifteen falls or 'failures' among the top six finishers - it seemed as if a berserk puppeter had taken over the proceedings and then been sricken with fits of ague.

"In a men's fianl, that number of falls is virtually unseen," Boitano said aferward. "Usually it's the women who arre either good or gross. But with all th etriples and combinations in th eprograma now, you never know. It could be me next time."

Not likely. Boitano, who finished third in last year's worlds and fifth in the '84 Olympics, is nothing if not consistent. Brian, a full-time skater with aspirations for the '88 Olympics and probably, eventually, an ice show, laced on his first pair of skates at age eight after neighbors alerted his mother, Donna, that young Brian was bounding around the neighborhood in his oller skates doing axels and spins. They were petrified he might crack his skull in someone's driveway. He has had the same coach, Linda Leaver, ever since. In 1982, when he was 18, Boitano became the first American man to do a triple axel at the U.S. Nationals, and the next year, at his first Worlds, he landed all six riples-the first man to do so in that competition - to finish seventh.

"I was like a little technical robot when Iwas 18 or 19," he says. "I never missed.And the reason I never missed was I never put any energy into my presentation. That's what peole picked on me for: no presentation. We've worked on it, but even now it's hard for me not to revert to that style. That's what happened in he short program. I was so scared I went back to my old technical days."

Boitano had suffered strained tendons in his ankle while training for the U.S. nationals in February. Consequently, he had been limiting his freestyle skating to half an hour a day and had practiced his short program only four times. He wanted to get through it cleanly, and that's just wheat he did on Tuesday. He was clean, cool and mistake-free, with all the flair of a Swiss banker. It left the judges cold, though he held on to fourth place in the combined standings. Leaver said, "I told him afterward that was a lesson for him: No matter what you do technically, if you're not aggressive, you're not going to get the marks."

The first three places going into Thursday's final were filled by the defending world champion, the U.S.S.R.'s Alexandr Fadeev; the 1986 European champion, Czechoslovakia's Jozef Sabovcik; and six-time Canadian champion and '84 olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. The chances of Boitano passing all three in the standings were so remote as not to merit discussion. But never underestimate the dreaded collywobbles, an expression fo rthe jitters that Thoma's Scottish coach, Alex McGowan, used last week. "Collywobbles," said McGowan. "You know. Could be upset tummy. Could be flu. Could be most anything that keeps you home from school the day of an exam."

Could also be an Adam's apple the size of a kumquat. Fadeev, skating first among the finalists, slipped on his first triple axel, tried a triple flip and touched down with his hand, then attempted his quadruple loop - which no one has ever completed in competition - and crashed half a revolution short. By the end of the program Fadeev had faltered badly three times, fallen twice and generally comported himselfon the ice like Mr. Flick of the Ice Follies. Asked afterward if it had not been a bit too ambitious, even dangerous, a program for him, Fadeev's coach, Stanislav Zhuk, stoically quoted the Olympic motto ("Farther, higher, sronger") and suggested that it was also possible to maim yourself while crossing the street.

Boitano was next. When Fadeev's marks werre announced - 5.5s and 5.6s primarily, but included a 5.9 and a 5.8 by Soviet judge Tatiana Danilenko - the crowd booed and whistled lustily, feeling they were too generous. (They were not aloneDanilenko was criticized by other judgesfor awarding Fadeev the marks and was suspended for two years by the Soviet officials.) Afterward Boitano, who had no idea what the fuss was all about, said, "I liked the booing. I don't like it when the crrowd focuses on me. I can feel the pressure. But you know what I was thinking about?Instead of triple axels or whatever, I was thinking this was just like Dorothy Hamill in the 1974 worlds in Munich, when the crowd booed some marks given to a hometown girl and Dorothy left the ice in tears. Then she came back, skated beautifully to win the long program and the competition."

It was still too early for Boitano to worry about first or second place, but he did want to skate well enough to take the bronze.Landing five triples without a hitch, he quickly won over the crowd and displayed the sort of fire and style that had been so flagrantly missing in his short program.

When Sabovcik, skating on a bad knee, turned in a flat long-program performance, the only person standing between Boitano and the gol, shockingly, was Orser. Freestyle is Orser's event - he had beaten U.S. gold medalist Scott Hamilton in both th elong and short programs in the '84 Olympics, finishing with the silver because of weak figures - and there was a general feeling in the skating community that the judges were read to make Orser champion. Which they were, until he flubbed his trademark jump, the triple axel,not once, but twice - crashing first onto his keister, and then stepping out of the second. "We'd always thought that for some reasonthe judges didn't want him," Orser's choreographer, Uschi Keszler, said later. "Then to find out that they did and to lose it on his favorite jump..." The Alydar of figure skating, Orser has now finished second in the worlds for the last three years.

In the passage outside the competitors' rooms, the entire U.S. delegation - skaters, coaches, officials - was gathered around a tiny black and white monitor waiting for Orser's scores. When they were flashed, a huge cheer erupted - six judges had put Boitano first; three had chosen Orser, desoite his falls. "It's wonderful, it's wonderful," said Carlo Fassi, Hamill's former coach, who know trains America's Caryn Kadavy. "Can you believ it?" gushed Don Laws, Tiffany Chin's guru. "Bless his heart," said another.

Boitano tearfully embraced Leaver for a full half minute. Wiping his eyes, his first words were, "Oh, God, I'm crying. I'm so embarrassed." A moment later Thomas rushed to congratulate him, throwing her arms around his neck saying, "I'm so psyched for tomorrow!"

Look out now, Debi. You girls are ruthless.