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Cashing In On The Collywobbles
E.M. Swift
March 31, 1986
Debi Thomas and Brian Boitano of the U.S. kept their cool and took the world figure skating titles from those who didn't
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March 31, 1986

Cashing In On The Collywobbles

Debi Thomas and Brian Boitano of the U.S. kept their cool and took the world figure skating titles from those who didn't

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Boitano was next. When Fadeev's marks were announced—5.5s and 5.6s primarily, but including a 5.9 and a 5.8 from Soviet judge Tatiana Danilenko—the crowd booed and whistled lustily, feeling they were too generous. (They were not alone. Danilenko was criticized by other judges for awarding Fadeev the marks and was suspended for two years by Soviet officials.) Afterward Boitano, who had no idea what the fuss was all about, said, "I liked the booing. I don't like it when the crowd focuses on me. I can feel the pressure. But you know what I was thinking about? Instead of triple axels or whatever, I was thinking this is just like Dorothy Hamill in the 1974 worlds in Munich, when the crowd booed some marks given to a hometown girl and Dorothy left the ice in tears. Then she came back, skated beautifully to win the long program and the silver in the competition."

It was still too early for Boitano to worry about first or second place, but he did want to skate well enough to take the bronze. Landing five triples without a hitch, he quickly won over the crowd and displayed the sort of fire and style that had been so flagrantly missing in his short program.

When Sabovcik, skating on a bad knee, turned in a flat long-program performance, the only person standing between Boitano and the gold, shockingly, was Orser. Freestyle is Orser's event—he had beaten U.S. gold medalist Scott Hamilton in both the long and short programs in the '84 Olympics, finishing with the silver because of weak figures—and there was a general feeling in the skating community that the judges were ready to make Orser champion. Which they were, until he flubbed his trademark jump, the triple axel, not once, but twice—crashing first onto his keister and then stepping out of the second. "We'd always thought that for some reason the judges didn't want him," Orser's choreographer, Uschi Keszler, said later. "Then to find out that they did and to lose it on his favorite jump...." The Alydar of figure skating, Orser has now finished second in the worlds for the last three years.

In the passage outside the competitors' rooms, the entire U.S. delegation—skaters, coaches, officials—was gathered around a tiny black-and-white monitor waiting for Orser's scores. When they were flashed, a huge cheer erupted—six judges had put Boitano first; three had chosen Orser, despite his falls. "It's wonderful, it's wonderful," said Carlo Fassi, Hamill's former coach, who now trains America's Caryn Kadavy. "Can you believe it?" gushed Don Laws, Tiffany Chin's guru. "Bless his heart," said another.

Boitano tearfully embraced Leaver for a full half minute. Wiping his eyes, his first words were, "Oh, God, I'm crying. I'm so embarrassed." A moment later Thomas rushed to congratulate him, throwing her arms around his neck and saying, "I'm so psyched for tomorrow!"

Later Thomas would admit that "tomorrow," when she had her freestyle showdown with Witt, lasted "about four weeks." In the early going of the ladies' competition, things had pretty much gone Thomas's way. Her goal in the compulsories had been to finish in the top three, and though the Stanford medical microbiology major had to complete a three-hour calculus exam while in Geneva, she finished second to the U.S.S.R.'s Kira Ivanova—a notoriously weak freestyle skater—and just ahead of the third-place Witt, and Chin, who stood fourth.

In the short program on Wednesday Thomas skated well enough to win, but it was a far cry from her best performance. "I stumbled on my footwork, and I had to yell like one of those karate fighters to land the triple-double combination. 'Hiku!' " she demonstrated gustily. "It was embarrassing."

Not nearly as embarrassing as Witt's jump combination in the short program. Taking the ice as the last skater of the evening, Witt was skating along airily—one might say regally—when suddenly she disappeared along the boards after a double loop: Craaash! An idol fallen. When she reemerged into view, her lovely face was hideously contorted by the German S-word, and her state of mind was no way improved by her subsequent marks. Fourth in the short program, fourth overall. Collywobbles? "I can assure you I wasn't nervous," Witt replied haughtily. "Maybe my reactions were one one-hundredth of a second slow."

Thomas, standing in first place overall, could now finish second to Witt in the long program on Friday and still be crowned world champion.

For the next two days, friends, strangers and media folk treated Thomas's win as a fait accompli. "There goes the world champion.... Two more days till you're world champion...." Thomas mimicked. "I got so sick of it I just wanted it over with. But I can't believe how tough I got. I'd been skating badly all week in practice, but before I went out there for the long program it was like Brian said: I went 'Grrr. Get out of my way.' "

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