Brian Boitano is working up speed as he approaches his takeoff point. His skates scratch lightly over the ice, making a sound that cuts through the still, cold air and echoes through the empty arena. He's in Berkeley, Calif., at the Iceland arena, where the interior walls are painted to look like a winter wonderland. It's a nice effect, if weird, for the streets outside the arena are among the grimiest in the Bay Area.
A mist hangs over the ice. As Boitano slips through it, he's thinking. Sit a little forward; push light; not too hyper on the turn. He transfers his weight from his left to his right skate and pivots so that he's gliding backward. His face is calm. He sets the toe pick of his left skate into the ice and tells himself, Now explode!
What happens next is nearly impossible to follow. Boitano launches himself skyward and immediately becomes a gyrating blur as he attempts a quadruple toe loop. In his mind's eye, Boitano sees an explosion of ice that propels him into the air. He's not concerned about the height of his jump, for he has the natural leap of a deer. Rather, he concentrates on staying centered, on making a quicker than normal rotation. If he is in trouble, as he is in this jump, he knows it early on. But that knowledge is of little use. Everything happens so quickly—onetwothreefour revolutions, faster than you can count—that there's no chance for a saving adjustment.
Crunkkkk! As he lands, Boitano's right skate blade digs deeply into the ice, and he pitches forward as if tackled. It's a violent fall. His coach, Linda Leaver, watches impassively. She has been his coach for 16 years, since he was eight years old. He's the godfather of her youngest daughter, Lindsay. When Boitano retires, Leaver will retire also, for she wants to spend more time with her family. And, let's face it, once you've coached a Brian Boitano, it's hard to settle for less—less of a skater and less of a friend.
After a while, Leaver asks, "How did that feel?" She's referring not to the fall but to his approach, in which they've made a minor adjustment. "Better," says Boitano, catching his breath. "I think I was too far forward."
"That's what it looked like."
Neither Boitano nor Leaver seems convinced. Maybe he was too far forward, maybe not. "Sometimes you just don't know what you did differently from one jump to the next," Boitano says later, assessing the failed leap. "You wonder. Why am I falling today?"
He falls because he skates out on the edge. With the 1988 Winter Olympics just around the corner, Boitano, four-time U.S. champion and the 1986 world champ, is still testing his personal limits and the limits of his sport, which just happen to be the same. At 24, he's still growing as a man and a skater.
"Technically, Brian's the best there's ever been. I don't think there's any question about that," says Sandra Bezic, Boitano's choreographer and a five-time Canadian pairs champion. "He's powerful, and his position in the air is perfect. He's technically exact."
A technical robot, Boitano used to call himself, as consistent as he was athletic. In 1982, when he was 18, he became the first skater to land a triple Axel in the nationals—3½ revolutions in the air. In '83, during his debut in the world championships, he became the first skater in the world to land all six triple jumps in that competition—Salchow, Lutz, Axel, toe loop, loop and flip. By way of comparison, Scott Hamilton, in winning the Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo in '84, performed only three of those triples, and the '87 world champion. Canada's Brian Orser, had never done a triple loop in competition until last September. "Not taking anything away from Brian Orser—he's quick and catlike, and his leg thrusts on his Axels are spectacular," says Leaver. "But technically there's no comparison between him and Brian."