Christopher Bowman; Skating Star Had an Affinity for Trouble

Christopher Bowman competes in the 1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where he took first place.
Christopher Bowman competes in the 1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where he took first place. (By Marcy Nighswander -- Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

Christopher Bowman, 40, a flamboyant figure skating champion whose career was undermined by a lack of discipline and a penchant for trouble, died Jan. 10 at a Budget Inn motel in North Hills, Calif., near Los Angeles. Authorities are investigating his death as a possible drug overdose.

During his short, spectacular career, Mr. Bowman was considered one of the world's most talented skaters, but he was equally notorious for his disdain for training and appetite for late-night partying. He won the U.S. national men's championship in 1989 and 1992 and finished second in the 1989 world championships, but he never won an Olympic medal and consistently failed to fulfill his vast potential.

He quarreled with his coaches, sometimes improvised his skating routines and outraged the staid hierarchy of figure skating with his brash behavior. A Sports Illustrated article once described him as skating's "charmer, clown and unrelenting gadabout."

At his best, Mr. Bowman had the ability to deliver electrifying performances, effortlessly landing an elaborate series of triple jumps. He became known as Bowman the Showman or, as he dubbed himself, Hans Brinker From Hell.

"When Christopher goes out there, it's like he's telling the crowd, 'Okay, fasten your seat belts. You're in for the thrill of your life,' " Frank Carroll, who was Mr. Bowman's coach for 18 years, said in 1989.

"If I had to pick the three most talented skaters of all time, I would pick Christopher as one," Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic men's figure skating champion, told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. "He had natural charisma, natural athleticism, he could turn on a crowd in a matter of seconds, and he always seemed so relaxed about it."

Christopher Nicol Bowman, who was born in Hollywood and grew up in nearby Van Nuys, was in the spotlight almost from birth. He was 6 months old when he was featured in his first commercial, and he appeared as a child actor in more than 200 others, including campaigns for McDonald's, Burger King and Pepsi. In the late 1970s, he played Benjamin, a blind boy, in two episodes of "Little House on the Prairie," and appeared on "Archie Bunker's Place" and other shows.

He began skating at 5 and took to the sport from the start. Great things were expected when, at age 16 in 1983, Mr. Bowman won the U.S. and world junior championships. In 1987, he placed second in the U.S. men's competition and won a spot on the 1988 Olympic team.

By then, however, he was caught in a self-destructive pattern that included drinking, drugs and women. Although it was kept quiet at the time, Mr. Bowman spent two months at the Betty Ford Center in California before the 1988 Olympics, trying to overcome a cocaine dependence.

In a sport often considered effeminate, Mr. Bowman adopted an aggressively masculine image. An ABC "Up Close and Personal" feature during the 1988 Olympics showed him roller skating with two bikini-clad women on each arm.

"He has a girl in every port, including most Communist countries," his coach, Carroll, said in 1989.

After finishing seventh in the 1988 Olympics, Mr. Bowman came back in 1989 to win the U.S. title and place second in the world championships.

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