For the second straight year, someone threw a wrench into a long-awaited coronation at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The parade floats took a surprise turn down an unforeseen avenue. The expected background music—a classical piece by Saint-Saëns that Michelle Kwan had chosen—was interrupted by the sound track from Dr. Zhivago. The winner's sash was slung over the shoulders of the blonde, not the ponytailed kid with the dimpled, Kewpie-doll face.
Ready or not, America's newest ice princess is Nicole Bobek, a gum-chomping 17-year-old from Chicago who has changed coaches eight times in the past eight years and who has been known to sneak a smoke outside the rink now and then. At the Detroit Skating Club, her latest training ground, Bobek is known as Brass Knuckles because of her fondness for wearing 10 rings at a lime, one for each finger.
"I guess I'd say I'm a free spirit," Bobek said, shrugging happily last Saturday after she had won her first U.S. championship with a charismatic if technically unambitious performance in the four-minute free-skating program and then headed off the ice at the Providence Civic Center with her right hand patting her heart as though she might faint.
Only one skater remained after Bobek, and that was the heavily favored Kwan, a 14-year-old from Torrance. Calif., who finished second at these championships a year ago and who was trying to become the youngest ladies' champion in the event's 78-year history.
Kwan did nothing to dissuade anyone from the belief that she's a very good skater on a beeline toward greatness. But at times last week she looked every bit the ninth grader who went trick-or-treating with her older sister last Halloween and who still walks around with a teddy-bear knapsack. Although Kwan talked about feeling no pressure, she privately went to her coach, Frank Carroll, at one point in the week and said, "Why am I nervous?"
When it came time for her to skate her make-or-break long program last Saturday and she had to wait while Bobek's marks were being read, Kwan stuffed a finger in each ear to block out the rink announcer's voice as he pealed out, "Five-eight, five-nine, five-nine...."
If Kwan had skated cleanly she would have won. Instead, she lurched into one triple-jump landing and fell to the ice on another. When Bobek, who was waiting backstage, was finally told that she had won, she sobbed on the shoulder of Richard Callaghan, her coach of just eight months. Instead of breaking into her usual kooky, lopsided grin, Bobek found that her bottom lip was quivering. "The score can't be right. It can't be right. There must be some mistake," she said.
By the time she arrived at her post-competition press conference, the gold medal slung around her neck, she was giving her mother, Jana, credit and giving Callaghan credit and giving training partner and new men's national champion Todd Eldredge credit. She gushed about her newfound values: "Perseverance...following the rules...and old-fashioned hard work." And one reporter—noting the irony of a self-proclaimed "wild child" raving about old-fashioned virtues—asked Bobek, "Is it safe to say you've found some old-time religion now too?"
That ended Bobek's giddy soliloquy. Her right eyebrow flew up, and she was just about to let an answer fly when Callaghan cut her off with, "Let's not push this thing too far, O.K?"
Bobek's victory was the biggest surprise at the U.S. nationals since, well, the bizarre 1994 championships, when a woman with whom Bobek has often been compared—Tonya Harding, Queen of the Do-It-Yourself Oil Change—walked away with the title that Nancy Kerrigan seemed destined to lake home. As with Harding, things just seem to happen to Bobek. In 1992 she was rushed into the operating room for an emergency appendectomy and nearly died when her lungs collapsed. At the 1993 world junior championships Bobek competed with blood oozing out of a gash in her right thigh after cutting herself with her skate blade on a jump landing. In 1994 she arrived at a competition in Philadelphia sporting bile marks on her neck, the result of an improbable attack by a friend's Labrador retriever. Bobek also changed coaches three times last year.