The constant for Nicole has been her mother, a Czech émigré who fled her country at age 21 when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Jana Bobek and a friend, Joyce Barron, have raised Nicole together. Every time Nicole has moved to skate, they've moved too, unloading a home or, most recently, selling Jana's Colorado Springs tanning salon.
After all that, Bobek had won just two titles of note before Saturday's triumph. And both of those—the Olympic Festival and the Vienna Cup in Austria—came in 1991. "That's why when I thought about training her, I figured, What have I got to lose?" Callaghan said.
Callaghan knew Bobek's faults: her so-so jumping ability, her tendency to bridle at hard training, her problems with diet and weight. But he also knew she was an arresting on-ice presence: The most-told Bobek story is about how George Steinbrenner saw her skate once, then cut a $15,000 check to help her train. But what Bobek had never done was to put together back-to-back strong programs in a major competition.
So the coach laid down stiff work rules and sold Bobek on the importance of showing up in fighting trim. Callaghan also issued an important edict: Although Bobek could choreograph her own programs, she could no longer improvise in mid-program when the crowd and the spirit moved her. At such moments, Eldredge says with a laugh, "she was liable to throw in just anything out there."
Bobek accepted the rules and headed to Providence with a modest goal: to get the judges to take her seriously again.
"Never," she said, "did I expect this."
But comebacks turned out to be the repeated story line here. Even the sport itself felt smeared by last year's Harding-Kerrigan affair—the whacking of Kerrigan's knee and the subsequent revelation that Harding's camp was responsible. Now, as lousy as it may sound, that has turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to American figure skating. Enrollment in basic skating courses has tripled, says USFSA president Claire Ferguson. USFSA executive director Jerry Lace said that his federation's TV sponsorship revenue increased $4.3 million in the past year. And there are now more skating tours, ersatz competitions and made-for-TV specials than you can track. Ferguson believes the only thing in recent memory that compares with skating's growth is the boom Mary Lou Retton sparked in American gymnastics—with this distinction: "What happened in gymnastics happened for a nice reason."
Granted. But the winners at these championships—which determined the two men, two women, two pairs and one ice dancing couple who will go to the world championships next month—reintroduced the feel-good ending to this event. Eldredge won his third U.S. championship, and his first after a four-year drought. The win sends him winging to the worlds in Birmingham, England, with a 4-0 record in major competitions since last October and a genuine shot at victory. In the most stunning performance of the championships, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand won the pairs with a bravura long program that pulled the crowd to its feet before they had even finished. Scads of floral bouquets pelted down like slanting rain, and six of the nine judges responded with perfect 6.0's. News of those marks will make its way across the Atlantic before Meno and Sand waft down at the worlds—if they ever come back to earth.
And Bobek? In addition to rehabilitating her image as a slacker, her victory quieted the caterwauling heard early in the week. Kwan was regarded as such a sure thing that many in Providence had already turned their eyes toward the junior ranks, suggesting that Kwan's most dangerous foil in 1996 might be Tara Lipinski, a 4'6", 69-pound phenom from Sugarland, Texas, who already throws seven triple jumps into her long program.
That was sheer lunacy, of course. Sure, ABC's Prime Time Live shot a feature on the 12-year-old Lipinski, and a rash of newspapers did glowing features on her. And Lipinski was brought in for two press conferences, where she spoke excitedly about loving the cameras, loving the roar of the crowds. Her coach, Jeff DiGregorio, spoke of having to fend off agents.