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Over Easy
Johnette Howard
March 06, 1995
For Surya Bonaly the skating has never been the hard part
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March 06, 1995

Over Easy

For Surya Bonaly the skating has never been the hard part

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The European figure skating championships had concluded a day earlier. Now, down on the ice, the exhibition gala for the top finishers was rolling into its second hour, and the skaters were offering up the usual assortment of routines. There were the boy-meets-girl bits favored by the pairs skaters, the rock-and-roll sketches done by the bare-chested men's stars, the classical programs of the stylists—all different, but all so bereft of showy jumps that they called to mind stripped-down Cadillacs left atop cement blocks.

Then Surya Bonaly of France took the ice as if slingshot from the arena tunnel, and for the next four minutes she held nothing back. She tossed out seven triple jumps, two triple-double combinations and two acrobatic moves banned from competition—a backflip and a handspring. She did all that plus some spins and blade-flashing footwork, all set to music that conjured up visions of violin bows dancing, kettle-drummers hunched over their labors and cellists sawing at their strings.

It was frenetic and even a little crazy in that the world championships were four weeks away and Bonaly, who had just won her fifth straight European title, was doing this optional performance despite a broken toe on her right foot and a strained right calf that caused her to limp.

Then, as suddenly as Bonaly had started, she was through. She dramatically spiked a toe pick into the ice and tossed her head back. The capacity crowd in Dortmund, Germany, sat silent.

Then the applause began, tepidly. From somewhere far off in the darkened rafters, one lonely bouquet of flowers spiraled down.

Depending upon the beholder, Surya Bonaly is the most gifted and athletic figure skater in the world today, or she is a unique but squandered talent whose career seems destined to stall at also-ran status if she fails to win her first world championship in Birmingham, England, starting March 6.

At 21 Bonaly already has an enviable resume. She could match the record of six European titles held by Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt if she ignores the siren call of the pro tours through next year. She was second at the 1994 world championships in Chiba, Japan—though she curdled that achievement by initially refusing to take the podium for the awards ceremony, then ripping off her silver medal to protest what she considered a hometown decision for Yuka Sato.

In her two Olympic trips Bonaly finished fifth in Albertville in '92 and fourth in Lillehammer in '94. But she scuttled her medal chances in Albertville by ignoring her coach and attempting—but failing—to land a quadruple, a four-revolution jump no woman has ever completed in competition.

With Sato, '94 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul and runner-up Nancy Kerrigan all skating as pros, Bonaly and Chen Lu of China are the top contenders for the 1995 world title. But ask almost anyone of the skating cognoscenti—including some of Bonaly's advisers—who will win if both women skate cleanly, and the reply is Chen Lu.

"I'm genuinely fond of Surya, but they'd take Chen Lu because there's just too much bad rap, too much bad publicity, too much bad talk about Surya that's gone by," says Michelle Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, one of Bonaly's sometime mentors. "And, you know, it's always the but that does her in: 'Surya's a great jumper, but....' 'Surya is a good skater who jumps well, but....' With Chen Lu, it's just, 'She's a beautiful skater.' "

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