Before Gailhaguet diseovered Surya as a 10-year-old clomping around a rink in Nice, he had never coached a skater of her caliber. And he hasn't since. It was Gailhaguet who talked the Bonalys into moving to Paris so Surya, already a world-class tumbling champion, could begin advanced skating lessons. And it was Gailhaguet who, with Suzanne Bonaly, presided over Surya's career until their bitter parting after the Albertville Olympics.
French hopes for Bonaly were high in Albertville. She had been chosen to give the athletes' oath, an Olympic pin had been made in her honor, and couturier Christian Lacroix had been enlisted to design her skating dress. Her pyrotechnical program and the sight of her rich black skin against the glazed white ice would have been enough to make her an unforgettable figure. But there was more. By then the exotic storyline about Bonaly's upbringing had been embroidered upon and circulated. The press was told Surya had been abandoned as an infant by her biological parents on Reunion, a French island off the coast of Madagascar. Some reports said she was found lying on a coconut-strewn beach.
"Not true and not true," Gailhaguet says.
Surya's birth certificate indicates that she was born in Nice, not on Reunion. She was adopted at the age of eight months by Suzanne and Georges Bonaly, a draftsman who now stays behind in Paris, working his government job and tending to Surya's schedule. The Bonalys, who are white, asked for a nonwhite baby because "they are the babies no one takes," Suzanne says.
It is true that Surya's mother educated her at home. And Suzanne is fond of Taoism and Zen. (Surya usually draws a yin-yang symbol next to her autograph "to let people know I am about more than the skating life.") But the story that Surya was reared on a macrobiotic diet that included birdseed? The tale that her hair, which her mom braided into a bullrope-thick ponytail for competitions, had never been cut at the time of the '92 Games?
"The hair story was true," Surya says.
"It was a weave, a hairpiece," says an American skating champion who was on several exhibition tours with the Bonalys.
When asked who came up with all the fanciful stories. Gailhaguet says, "I made them up." Why? "The journalists loved it," Gailhaguet says. "They wrote that [Reunion] thing like crazy. Because that's what you want to hear, no? It's a good story.... Réunion, it was just an idea I had at the moment.... We did that together, me and the mother. We said Surya came from Nice, but the [biological) parents came from Réunion. Really, we had no idea."
So why did he pick Reunion?
"I just always wanted to go there," Gailhaguet says with a shrug.