The Soaring Spinning Battle of the Brians

When the best Amercian and the best Canadian face off next week, a friendly, decade-long skating rivalry will finally be settled

"We are a lot alike." -Brian Boitano

"We have a lot of similarities". -Brian Orser

 

That's a lot of understatement. Brian Boitano and Brian Orser are linked circles in a perfect figure eight-they mirror each other. It is not just because they have the same name, the same lean look and the same longish hairstyle. The two are both homebodies who enjoy the pampered slot of youngest in a long line of siblings. Each took up skating before his tenth birthday, and (unlike most skaters) still trains with his first and only coach. Both have captured a string of national figure-skating titles, Boitano in the U.S., Orser in Canada. Each has reigned as world champion; each is capable of serious bobbles. And awkward as it may be for the two friends, each is one of his country's best hopes for gold at Calgary.

Of course, there are differences. The American child started after seeing an ice show; the Canadian was first attracted to hockey. As they matured, so goes the rinkside chatter, Boitano became the "technical" Brian, long on consistency, short on artistry. Orser is the "theatrical" Brian, capable of delivering explosive performances when he isn't unhinged by nerves. But such nugget-size insights are misleading. Boitano can also stun the crowd with his flare, and Orser can draw gasps for his technical brilliance. So when the battle of the Brians is settled in the Olympic Saddledome on Feb. 20, barring cataclysm, injury or a Soviet upset, predicting the outcome is a matter of Yogi Berra-like simplicity: whichever Brian has the better night will carry home gold.

How did they get to Calgary? Practice, practice, practice. For Boitano, 24, that has meant, year in and year out, six days a week, five hours a day at some fairly shabby rinks in the San Francisco area. "The part I love is the day-to-day improvement," he says, "not the competition." Maybe that explains his reputation for perfectionism. Only rarely does he flub a figure or miss one of his eight triple jumps. Such determination helped him win the world championship in 1986. A year later though, that same grim correctness contributed to the loss of his title to Orser. Not demonstrative enough, needs more panache, tut-tutted pundits.

Enter Choreographer Sandra Bezic of Toronto, and it was goodbye Tech Weenie, hello Elegance Whiz. Out went the bouncy pop-rock medley. In came sobering, dramatic theme music. Also, more practice, this time emphasizing artistry. The results were startling. Last month in Denver as he collected his fourth consecutive national title, Boitano made history when eight of the nine judges awarded perfect 6.Os for composition and style on his two-minute program. Boitano hands most of the credit to Coach Linda Leaver. When she spotted him at age eight in Sunnyvale, Calif., Leaver was initially struck by how "tiny and adorable" he was. She was most taken, however, by his rapid improvement. "I came home and told my husband that Brian would be a world champion," says Leaver. "It just took a little longer than I thought." After 16 years of working together, Leaver and Boitano hardly need to speak. They simply sense. "It's kind of like one person split in half," he says.

Last month Leaver announced that Boitano would not try the jump for which he is best known, the quadruple toe loop, at the Olympics. Never performed successfully in competition, the quad has become the slippery grail of skating. Boitano practices it daily and hits almost 100% of the time. But in competition, he has thrown it-and blown it-four times, most noticeably at the 1987 world champonship. Leaver sees little point in risking another disaster when Boitano already has what is considered the most technically difficult program ever and can score 6.Os without the quad. Boitano finds the decision somewhat disappointing but admits that the stunt is "like packing bricks on your shoulders."

The Canadian Brian also has a quad in his arsenal, but he too plans not to deploy it in the Saddledome. "My program was set in September," says Orser, 26. "1 can't have any doubt or question whether I'm going to do a triple or a quadruple in one spot." Orser's confidence will be the key to whether he triumphs or stumbles. Although he has had a lock on the Canadian title for eight years, he has often been an also-ran at the international level. After taking the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics, just behind America's Scott Hamilton and three places ahead of Boitano, Orser placed second in three successive world championships. Last year he took the title.

The breakthrough was as much psychological as competitive. After twice bungling his trademark triple Axel jump at the 1986 world competition, Orser set out to improve his state of mind. Sports Psychologist Peter Jensen has worked regularly with him on envisioning success, practicing success, achieving success. A gaggle of others also laid on expertise. In addition to his shrink, Orser has a nutritionist, a physical therapist, a choreographer and a figures coach (for the compulsories). Finally, and always, there is Coach Doug Leigh, who has been with Orser for 17 years.

The full-support approach has bolstered the athlete's confidence. The Boitano challenge? "If weboth did a perfect program, I'd come out ahead," he says positively. Orser & Co.are leaving nothing to chance.

Workouts run to eight hours a day, six days aweek. Recently, the entire Canadian figure-skating team rented Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens and simulated Olympic conditions, including the actual announcer who will be in Calgary. "Now in my practice, I can visualize how I'm going to feel in the Saddledome," says Orser. "I can picture the audience, all of the sounds,everything."

Common wisdom among skaters holds that it is harder to defend as world champion than to come from behind. Adding to the pressure, Canada's Olympic dreams rest heavily on Penetanguishene's favorite son (that's in Ontario). But Orser seems to relish his position. "I'm in the driver's seat going in," he says, "so all eyes and expectations will be on me. That's the way I want it to be." Other than Boitano, the only tough competition is likely to come from Alexander Fadeev, the Soviet skater who won the 1985 world title and has placed third ever since.

Despite competitive tensions, the two Brians are friends off the ice. Since first crossing blades at the 1978 junior world championship in France, they have developed a genuine warmth for each other, built on shared interests, common pressures and gentle mutual needling. When Orser turned 26 in December, Boitano sent a card that read, "You are just like a ripe, vintage wine. Old." Both men know not to push the friendship where it cannot go. "We never talk skating," says Boitano. "The program is taboo."

Maybe following Budapest, those barriers will come down. The Hungarian capital will be the host for the 1988 world championships-and a quad perhaps?-just four weeks after the Olympic Games. Then both Brians intend to retire from amateur skating. Is there life after 6.0s? Orser already co-owns a restaurant in a Toronto suburb and is planning a second this year. Boitano (surprise! surprise!) also wants to go into the food business. His dream is to open an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, some place where he can satisfy his constant craving for pasta. Both Brians will have ample offers to build professional skating careers, an option that appeals more to Orser than to Boitano. But they have kicked around one other idea that may prove irresistible: a new ice show that features bright lights, colorful costumes - and two Brians.

by Jill Smolowe

Reported by Greg Taylor/Toronto and Paul A.Wittman/San Francisco

Time, February 15, 1988