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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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Two kids grow up in neighboring towns in California's Silicon Valley. He's white, 22, the son of upper-middle-class parents (father: banker; mother: housewife). She's black, 18, a college student, her parents—a computer program manager and a program analyst—are divorced. They meet in Geneva and, assisted by a veritable plague of the collywobbles, dethrone a couple of Eastern-bloc world champions, including a beautiful villainess, and tip the figure skating world on its sit spin. And...No, no, they don't fall in love. America falls in love with them—a pair of refreshing first-time champs and a wonderful reminder that U.S. athletes are, well, damn good at upsets. And occasionally can even joke about it.

As in the scene last Saturday morning when Brian Boitano of Sunnyvale, Calif. and Debi Thomas of nearby San Jose posed with their gold medals and a single orange gladiola. Thomas playfully pretended to offer the flower to the memory of Olympic gold medal winner and two-time world champion Katarina Witt's reign. Then, "No, no. I take it back," the new world ladies' champion said, cringing. "I'll pay for that."

"No kidding," said Boitano, the men's champ. "Did you see Katarina during practice? It was, like, a miracle if you two ever made eye contact. 'Grrr. Get out of my way,' " he said, curling his lip. He concluded with a shudder, "You girls are ruthless."

Ruthlessly brilliant, perhaps, as was Boitano—though there is not a ruthless bone in his body—who launched himself from fourth place to the world title during the men's long program on Thursday night. This was an event so marred by tumbles—there were 15 falls and "failures" among the top six finishers—it seemed as if a berserk puppeteer had taken over the proceedings and then been stricken with fits of ague.

"In a men's final, that number of falls is virtually unseen," Boitano said afterward. "Usually it's the women who are either good or gross. But with all the triples and combinations in the programs now, you never know. It could be me next time."

Not likely. Boitano, who finished third in last year's worlds and fifth in the '84 Olympics, is nothing if not consistent. Brian, a full-time skater with aspirations for the '88 Olympics and probably, eventually, an ice show, laced on his first pair of ice skates at age eight after neighbors alerted his mother, Donna, that young Brian was bounding around the neighborhood in his roller skates doing axels and spins. They were petrified he might crack his skull in someone's driveway. He has had the same coach, Linda Leaver, ever since. In 1982, when he was 18, Boitano became the first American man to do a triple axel at the U.S. nationals, and the next year, in his first worlds, he landed all six triples—the first man to do so in that competition—to finish seventh.

"I was like a little technical robot when I was 18 or 19," he says. "I never missed. And the reason I never missed was I never put any energy into my presentation. That's what people picked on me for: no presentation. We've worked on it, but even now it's hard for me not to revert to that style. That's what happened in the short program. I was so scared I went back to my old technical days."

Boitano had suffered strained tendons in his ankle while training for the U.S. nationals in February. Consequently, he had been limiting his freestyle skating to half an hour a day and had practiced his short program only four times. He wanted to get through it cleanly, and that is just what he did on Tuesday. He was clean, cool and mistake-free, with all the flair of a Swiss banker. It left the judges cold, though he held on to fourth place in the combined standings. Leaver said, "I told him afterward that was a lesson for him: No matter what you do technically, if you're not aggressive, you're not going to get the marks."

The first three places going into Thursday's final were filled by the defending world champion, the U.S.S.R.'s Alexandr Fadeev; the 1986 European champion, Czechoslovakia's Jozef Sabovcik; and six-time Canadian champ and '84 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. The chances of Boitano passing all three in the standings were so remote as not to merit discussion. But never underestimate the dread collywobbles, an expression for the jitters that Thomas's Scottish coach, Alex McGowan, used last week. "Collywobbles," said McGowan. "You know. Could be upset tummy. Could be flu. Could be most anything that keeps you home from school the day of an exam."

Could also be an Adam's apple the size of a kumquat. Fadeev, skating first among the finalists, slipped on his first triple axel, tried a triple flip and touched down with his hand, then attempted a quadruple loop—which no one has ever completed in competition—and crashed half a revolution short. By the end of the program Fadeev had faltered badly three times, fallen twice and generally comported himself on the ice like Mr. Frick of the Ice Follies. Asked afterward if it had not been a bit too ambitious, even dangerous, a program for him, Fadeev's coach, Stanislav Zhuk, stoically quoted the Olympic motto ("Farther, higher, stronger") and suggested that it was also possible to maim yourself while crossing the street.

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