There were lots of good reasons that the folks who won titles at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last week should not have done so. One champion was supposedly too ill. Another was reputedly too old. A third was too untrained and too incorrigible. And a fourth, the eventual star of the competition, women's champion Kristi Yamaguchi. was said to be too unathletic, for pity's sake, too artistic for a world gone mad for jumping.
You could have fooled the 13,396 fans at sold-out Orlando Arena last Saturday night who witnessed Yamaguchi at her finest when she fashioned one of the most complete figure skating performances ever seen on American ice, one of grace, athleticism and style. Not only did Yamaguchi put a gulf between herself and the rest of the U.S. women, but she also would have whipped the cream of American male skaters had she been entered in that soporific scrabble of alleged titans.
Another thing: Not one of last year's winners prevailed this year. Judges, who traditionally have balked like mules at the idea of lifting titles from current holders in the year of an Olympics—the last time the defending champions in the four major events were dethroned in an Olympic year was 1928—properly saddled the 1991 champs with an oh-for-Orlando, a box score that included an intentional walk by Todd Eldredge. Winner of the men's title in 1990 and '91. Eldredge withdrew from the competition on Thursday, complaining of a severe back sprain. On Saturday, Eldredge nevertheless was named to the Olympic team by the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) on the basis of his third-place finish in last year's world championships.
The unlikeliest victors in Orlando were the dance team of April Sargent-Thomas and Russ Witherby, who won the ice dancing competition less than three weeks after Sargent-Thomas had undergone emergency surgery in her hometown of Ogdensburg, N.Y., to repair a ruptured ovarian cyst. Seven ounces of blood were removed from her abdomen during the operation, which took place on Dec. 21, and it was five days before she could get out of bed without help. Sargent-Thomas's doctors told her she had no chance of recovering in time for the nationals. But on Dec. 29, Sargent-Thomas was back on the ice, and even though she suffered frequent dizzy spells and felt faint during practices, a mere 12 days later she and Witherby performed an energetic and stylish four-minute program that won them their first U.S. championship.
Nearly as remarkable was the victory in the pairs by first-time champions Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval, the heroes of working stiffs and dreamers. They have been a team for less than a year and a half. Urbanski is Marval's third partner. Marval is Urbanski's sixth. In addition to training 40 hours a week, Marval, 26, owns and runs a small trucking company in New Egypt, N.J., while Urbanski, 31, works as a waitress at a Wilmington, Del., yuppie bar and grill called Kid Shelleen's.
To refer to these two as grizzled veterans is to understate the case. Urbanski is closer in age to the mothers of her competitors than she is to the little darlings themselves. Veteran USFSA officials, who do not keep records of such minutiae, say you have to go back at least 50 years to find a U.S. titlist who was her senior. "I feel pretty good," Urbanski said after winning, her voice raspy enough to file a board. "Not as good as I did at 18, but pretty good."
Indeed, she is the most energetic skater among the top U.S. pairs and is already making noises about staying in the sport through the 1994 Olympics. "They're not an artistic pair," said their coach, Ron Ludington. "But they're exciting. There's a determination in them that shows. A truck driver and a waitress win the national championship. It's not the status quo, that's for sure."
A more familiar name dominated the men's competition—too familiar for many USFSA officials. We speak, of course, of Christopher Bowman, a.k.a. Hans Brinker from hell. Let us bring you up-to-date on Bowman's latest embroilment. In October he was mugged in Toronto. He was beaten so severely that a bone in his face was fractured, and he required plastic surgery. Bowman never filed a police report. A rumor, widely circulated and denied by Bowman last week, was that the mugging occurred after Bowman had left a crack house without paying his bill. Franklin Nelson, president of the USFSA, said in Orlando that he had asked Bowman about the crack house rumor and that Bowman had assured him there was nothing to it.
All this came up last week during a press conference with Bowman and his coach of only five weeks, John Nicks, who is Bowman's third mentor in 1½ years. The venerable Nicks said that Bowman, like his other skaters who are 16 and older, had agreed to undergo confidential periodic drug testing. He had accepted Bowman, he said, because "at my stage of life there aren't many challenges left, but heck, there's one here."
When asked why he had not filed a police report, Bowman began carrying on about the laid-back attitude of Toronto police as if he'd been mugged in a Third World nation. "This isn't like Los Angeles," Bowman said, "where it's cuffed-and-the-rubber-hose."