Giving it a Whirl
Double the Pleasure
Now that he has added artistry to his superior athleticism, Brian Boitano is no longer merely a skating robot
by EM Swift
BRIAN BOITANO IS WORKING up speed as he approaches his takeoff point. His skates scratch lightly over the ice, making a sound that cuts through the still, cold air and echoes through the empty arena. He's in Berkeley, California at the Iceland Arena, where the interior walls are painted to look like a winter wonderland. It's a nice effect, if weird, for the streets outside the arena are among the grimiest in the Bay Area.
A mist hangs over the ice. As Boitano slips through it, he's thinking, Sit a little forward; push light; not too hyper on the turn. He transfers his weight from his left to his right skate and pivots so that he's gliding backward. His face is calm. He sets the toe pick of his left skate into the ice and tells himself, Now explode!
What happens next is nearly impossible to follow. Boitano launches himself skyward and immediately becomes a gyrating blur -as he attempts a quadruple toe loop. In his mind's eye, Boitano sees an explosion of ice that propels him into the air. He's not concerned about the height of his jump, for he has the natural leap of a deer. Rather, he concentrates on staying centered, on making a quicker than normal rotation. If he is in trouble, as he is in this jump, he knows it early on. But that knowledge is of little use. Everything happens so quickly-one two three four revolutions, faster than you can count-that there's no chance for a saving adjustment.
Crunkkkk! As he lands, Boitano's right skate blade digs deeply into the ice, and he pitches forward as if tackled. It's a violent fall. His coach, Linda Leaver, watches impassively. She has been his coach for 16 years, since he was eight years old. He's the godfather of her youngest daughter, Lindsay. When Boitano retires, Leaver will retire also, for she wants to spend more time with her family. And, let's face it, once you've coached a Brian Boitano, it's hard to settle for less-less of a skater and less of a friend.
After a while, Leaver asks, "How did that feel?" She's referring not to the fall but to his approach, in which they've made a minor adjustment. "Better," says Boitano, catching his breath. "I think I was too far forward."
"That's what it looked like."
Neither Boitano nor Leaver seems convinced. Maybe he was too far forward, maybe not. "Sometimes you just don't know what you did differently from one jump to the next," Boitano says later, assessing the failed leap. "You wonder, Why am I falling today?"
He falls because he skates out on the edge. With the 1988 Winter Olympics just around the corner, Boitano, four-time U.S. champion and the 1986 world champ, is still testing his personal limits and the limits of his sport, which just happen to be the same. At 24, he's still growing as a man and a skater.
"Technically, Brian's the best there's ever been. I don't think there's any question about that," says Sandra Bezic, Boitano's choreographer and a five-time Canadian pairs champion. "He's powerful, and his position in the air is perfect. He's technically exact."
A technical robot, Boitano used to call himself, as consistent as he was athletic. In 1982, when he was 18, he became the first skater to land a triple Axel in the nationals-3 1/2 revolutions in the air. In '83, during his debut in the world championships, he became the first skater in the world to land all six triple jumps in that competition-Salchow, Lutz, Axel, toe loop, loop and flip. By way of comparison, Scott Hamilton, in winning the Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo in '84, performed only three of those triples, and the '87 world champion, Canada's Brian Orser, had never done a triple loop in competition until last September. "Not taking anything away from Brian Orser-he's quick and catlike, and his leg thrusts on his Axels are spectacular," says Leaver. "But technically there's no comparison between him and Brian." Leaver's view-a biased one, to be sure-is shared by most of the skating community. On the athletic side, Boitano is the dominant male skating today. In addition to the six triples he has in his repertoire, he has also created something he jokingly calls the 'Tano Triple, in which he performs a triple Lutz with one arm over his head and the other arm cradled in front of him, as if holding an invisible partner. Visually, the move is engaging, but having one's arms one's body has the aerodynamic effect of slowing down rotation. To make up for that, Boitano must reach a staggering height. "No one else in the world can do it," says Leaver. "I'd like to see anyone else even try it."
But there's more to skating than athletics, as was reinforced last March in Cincinnati when Orser took the world championship away from Boitano, who fell while attempting his much ballyhooed quadruple toe loop. "Failing to land the quad wasn't what cost him the title," says Bezic. "He's told me a number of times he wasn't hungry enough to win. It was like he wanted to skip a year and go right to 1988."
"It wasn't that important to me," Boitano agrees. "I really believe I made myself not win in Cincinnati."
That's the fatalist in Boitano talking. He doesn't believe in randomness. And whether it was the ghost of Hans Brinker, benign fate or some inner voice in Boitano-a voice he calls Murphy-that orchestrated his defeat in the world championships, the end result has been that Boitano is a better skater for it.
Someone or something must have been watching over him all these years. How could he ever have been drawn into this crazy sport? No one in his family skated. None of his friends did. As the youngest-by seven years-of four siblings, Boitano spent a lot of time by himself as a child. He roller-skated on the sidewalks in front of his home in Sunnyvale, Calif. One of his favorite games was to pretend he was invisible. And he liked baseball, which his father, Lew, had played at the semipro level for the San Jose Bees before starting a career in banking.
When Brian was eight, the Ice Follies came to San Francisco, and his parents took him to see it. The moment he remembers best was when a woman in an Arabian costume was carried around on a giant pillow looking like something out of TV's I Dream of Jeannie. (The woman was Uschi Keszler, who is now Orser's choreographer-another twist of fate as far as Boitano is concerned.) Before long he had badgered his parents into paying for ice skating lessons. The teacher was Leaver, who worked out of the Sunnyvale Ice Palace.
Leaver had many students back then-she now has only two, Boitano and Yvonne Gomez, the Spanish national champion who will also skate at Calgary-but she immediately saw something special in Brian. "I thought he'd be great right away," she says. " I used to keep charts on every student, with my predictions and expectations for them. Though Brian was only eight, I went home and told my husband that one day he'd be the world champion."
Boitano's idol was Terry Kubicka, the U.S. champion in 1976, who holds the distinction of being the first and last skater to do a backflip in the Olympics, which he performed at Innsbruck in 1976. (The backflip was soon banned as too dangerous by the International Skating Union.) "Like most boys, Brian was never very interested in the artistic side," says Leaver. "How you point your toe and all that. He was interested in going fast and jumping high and doing more turns than everybody else."
Thus was born the technical robot, a perfectionist who never missed a jump but who also never put very much of his inner self on display. He impressed the judges but left them unmoved. "He's always been a private person," says Leaver. "But every year I've known him he's changed and grown. He's more ready now to express what's inside him through his skating.
"That has been a big step for Boitano. Figure skating is as subjective a sport as there is, and to bare one's soul before an international panel of sour-looking judges-not to mention a packed arena-takes equal parts moxie and ham. Boitano is not a showman by nature. He excelled in this sport, even won a world championship, on the technical brilliance of his skating and his ability to perform under pressure. Those qualities masked his artistic shortcomings.
Ironically, had he mastered the quad in 1987, he might never have been a complete skater. The quad represents the new, and perhaps last, technical frontier for skaters, and Boitano wanted to be the first to land it cleanly in competition. He nearly did so at the '87 nationals in Tacoma, Wash., last February, completing the four revolutions of the toe loop but touching down with his hand as he landed. He would try it again at the worlds.
The quad, by that time, had taken on a life of its own. It was bigger, almost, than the competition itself. Boitano was asked about it incessantly, was second-guessed for including it in such an important competition and was sniped at by some of his rivals for building his program around a single gimmicky jump. While warming up for the long-program part of the competition, which he needed to win to retain his title, Boitano nailed a quad perfectly. "It was the best one I'd ever done in front of an audience," Boitano recalls, "and I was really proud of myself. The voice inside me, Murphy, started saying, You proved to yourself you could do it. Good going. Then another voice inside me said, Keep fighting. You have to do it in the actual competition. Oh, relax, Murphy would say. I thought, Shut up, Murphy. You're not doing me any good.'
But maybe Murphy knew best. Boitano fell when he attempted the quad during his long program, and while that miscue by itself didn't cost him the title, it did cost him some confidence. He lost his aggressiveness in the last two minutes of his program, pulled out of a couple of moves and lost the championship to Orser.
"Ever since he first skated, every time Brian's lost something he could have won, he's made a major change in direction," says Leaver. Boitano had considered working with choreographer Bezic in the past but hadn't followed up on the idea for one reason or another. Now he was ready. Leaver contacted Bezic, who lives in Toronto, and Boitano headed for Canada. "I didn't know how much I could do for him," Bezic says. "Artistically, a lot of people thought that Brian Orser was superior to him and that my Brian just might not have it. I was worried about that myself. But he does have it. He just needed some direction."
When Boitano was choosing his own music, he skated to upbeat rock-'n'-roll tunes or western fiddle music. In his long program he performed the role of a skating cowboy-lots of hat-tipping and handclapping and smiles. "I was trying to be a big Brian Orser," he says now. "I thought I had to do that."
Orser is small, almost tiny, at 5'4", 135 pounds. Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champ, is similarly built. So is the top Soviet skater, Alexander Fadeev. Boitano, by contrast, is a veritable giant in his field at 5' 11", 158 pounds. "I've always envied those other guys who have compact bodies and those quick, little legs," he says. "But Sandra wanted to bring out the qualities that suit me best, which are line and strength. Those other skaters can't be line skaters [performers who use the natural lines of their body to create a pleasing design]. We're just going to make a great line and let the judges decide which look they like better."
0ut went the rock'n'roll. Out went the fiddles. "He's powerful-his jumps are incredible-and I wanted to showcase simplicity instead of shtick,"says Bezic. For Boitano's short program Bezic chose a ballet, Les Patineurs ("The Skaters"), that's about a 19th-century boy who struts his stuff on a frozen pond while the townspeople watch in awe. The young skater is arrogant-and good. Boitano, while practicing the program, lands a triple Axel-double loop combination and then wipes the snow off his skate blade, throwing it to the ice with a flourish. "Get that chin up!" Bezic tells Boitano, encouraging him to look as cocksure as possible. Strangely, that attitude on him is attractive, while on another skater it might look obnoxious. "To me, Brian is the result of a hundred years of skating, and we wanted to combine his technical ability with the classic look of just skating on a pond," says Bezic. "It works because he's not arrogant. He's such a together and disciplined person that what comes across is strength."
Boitano skates with much the same demeanor in his new long program, in which he plays a military character, to music composed for the film Napoleon. He battles and parades, dances and courts, broods and exults in victory. In the process, Boitano showcases his array of technical skills, which will include the quad in the 1988 world championships in Budapest, but not the Olympics. Leaver believes he can win the gold medal in Calgary without it and feels there is too much at stake to risk a fall. But in any case, the quad isn't the centerpiece of the performance. Boitano is. He's riveting.
"He's always felt a little vulnerable on the ice," says Bezic. "With these two programs, either as the military man or the arrogant boy, he can hide behind a character. It gives him a mask. That helps when you're putting your heart and soul on the ice. It's like being barenaked out there during a performance."
Now the artist and athlete have come together, perhaps for the first time. In January at the nationals, Boitano's short program brought the crowd to its feet and earned perfect marks for composition and style from eight of the nine judges. "I've never had such positive feedback,"he says. "People treat me as if a lightning bolt came down and hit me, as if Sandra performed some sort of miracle. But I don't believe it. What they're seeing was always inside me, but I always hid it. What I'm seeing is me. It's me out there." What they're seeing is an athlete in his prime.
It's 1:30 p.m. Boitano has been training since 7:45-three hours of practicing figures, a few minutes' rest while the ice was resurfaced and then two more hours of freestyle skating. He's an uncomplaining worker, for he hasn't, even after all these years, lost his love of skating.
The mist has lifted off the ice, and Boitano's blades are making short, quick, snicking noises as he picks up speed to attempt another quad. As he approaches the takeoff point, he thinks once more, Sit a little forward; push light; not too hyper on the turn. He pivots backward, coasting, his legs flexed. Then he sets his toe pick and explodes!
You still can't follow the spin. Up and out he soars, an airborne top, some sort of impossible human gyroscope on skates. As he blurs before you, you are thinking, There will never be a quintuple toe loop; they will run a two-minute mile before a man can spin faster than this while in flight. And then-crunkkkk!-the moment is past. His blade hits, and he turns. He has nailed it. A perfectly executed quad. Leaver watches, a smile creasing her face, as Boitano makes a couple of perfunctory moves and then coasts past, hands on his hips, catching his breath. What was different about that one? he wonders.