Anyone who thinks the sport of figure skating isn't a never-ending morality play should have been at the U.S. nationals in San Jose last week. Greed and complacency? Smitten with a righteous vengeance. Hard work and dedication? Rewarded with gold. Poverty, suffering and faith? Visited by a genuine miracle. There was even sort of a moral to the weekend: If you are offered a role in the Nutcracker, hang up the phone and get back out to practice, because it's the devil and he's after your crown.
Two new singles national champions emerged from the proceedings, both of whom skated virtually without error but arrived via far different roads. They were 15-year-old Michelle Kwan, the youngest ladies' winner since Peggy Fleming (who was also 15) in 1964, and 26-year-old Rudy Galindo, the oldest men's champion since someone named Chris Christenson won, at age 51, in '26, and the unquestioned star of the week.
Kwan's ascendancy had been long predicted. Ever since she arrived on the senior scene from Torrance, Calif., as a 4'9", 77-pound 13-year-old, complete with her own agent, experts have heralded her as the champion-in-waiting. Kwan had all the tools: a topflight coach in Frank Carroll, uncommon grace and style, and the usual assortment of women's jumps, which is to say, everything but the triple Axel. Most important, she had the focus, discipline and work ethic of all the past U.S. greats, from Fleming to Kristi Yamaguchi.
So it was no great surprise that Kwan, who has matured into a 5'2", 98-pound young woman polished in the application of makeup, won easily. She has been extraordinarily consistent in her performances all year.
But even the most fertile imagination would have had trouble foreseeing the sudden demise of the defending champion, 18-year-old Nicole Bobek. Chicago-born and raised by way of the four winds, Bobek is described beautifully by one skater as "Marilyn on ice." Blonde, long-limbed and unapologetically flirtatious, she is Kwan's philosophical opposite: a devotee of the Christopher Bowman-Tonya Harding School of Talent Disposal, with an almost religious aversion to training.
In the past nine years Bobek has been through nine coaches, the most recent change having come in December, when she left Richard Callaghan—under whose firm hand she won the 1995 national title and the bronze medal at the world championships—for Barbara Roles Williams of Las Vegas, one of her previous coaches. Neither Bobek nor Callaghan was specific about their split, but Bobek's enthusiasm for training clearly had waned even further since last year. It showed last fall when she finished sixth in a weak Skate America field in Detroit, then third in the Nation's Cup in Frankfurt. Kwan won both events. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Bobek starred in a 20-city Nutcracker on Ice tour, for which she was reportedly paid $90,000. It was in that period that she announced she was leaving Callaghan.
It was also in the midst of that tour that Bobek aggravated a tendon injury on the inside of her right ankle—the ankle she lands on when she jumps. A doctor told her the best therapy would be to take two or three weeks off. "Yeah, right," Bobek responded. "I have no time to take off."
The show must go on. Admirable if you are a showgirl, but Bobek was still masquerading as an athlete. After her Nutcracker stint, she continued to be troubled by the tendon. Roles Williams asked whether Bobek might be awarded a bye onto the U.S. team that will compete in the worlds in Edmonton if she was unable to compete at the nationals. Morry Stillwell, the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) president, advised Bobek to show up and skate.
Bobek got it half right. She blew into San Jose, held a charming if disingenuous press conference—"I'm a woman," she purred when asked about the differences between her skating and Kwan's—and displayed a singular inability to land her triple Lutz at practice. During last Friday's short program Bobek touched down with her hand after landing the Lutz, a mistake that put her in third behind Kwan and 24-year-old Tonia Kwiatkowski. Afterward Bobek complained about the pain in her ankle but vowed to soldier on.
At the next morning's practice, she said, the ankle felt all right, but it began to swell in the afternoon. She tested it in warmups that night, felt it was tender and had Warren King, a Bay Area orthopedist, examine it minutes before she was to skate. By mutual decision Bobek, Roles Williams and King told officials Bobek would withdraw. Even as that decision was being made, Kwan was skating a brilliant and mature program that included seven triple jumps, two of which were in combination (with one of those a triple triple). Two good ankles would not have been enough for Bobek to surpass Kwan's performance. King's prognosis: With two or three weeks rest, Bobek's ankle should be fine.