All the precise triple axels and exacting toe loops of the last 16 years will come together for Brian Boitano in Calgary. The obsessive perfectionist who once skated blankly across a sheet of ice has finally acquired that elusive something called artistry.
Boitano is by all accounts one of the most skilled athletes to compete in the ethereal sport of international figure skating. But the 24-year-old banker's son who is the heir to 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton had to confront the knowledge that his technical adeptness made him ultimately merely that: a technician. So when Boitano goes to Calgary, he will take a new, liberated skating persona and the intention of claiming a gold medal.
Boitano's transformation from colorless excellence to performing art began when he lost the 1987 world championship to Brian Orser of Canada last spring. Orser, once perennial runner-up to Boitano, will be skating as the favorite on his home ice at the Saddledome, and posseses the theatrical flair that could sway the judges. World bronze medalist and 1985 world champion Alexander Fadeev of the Soviet Union also could be a factor.
The realization that he was less than a complete skater came late and painfully to Boitano, on the morning after his loss to Orser. After years of skating stoically in a trademark plain blue outfit, it occurred to him that a square no matter how perfectly drawn is still a square, and ultimately it's geometry, not art. Given limited time to remedy this before the Olympics, Boitano immediately hired renowned skate choreographer Sandra Bezic, who has added grace and expression to his error-free mechanics.
"I think there was a part of me that was yearning to break out," he said. "But if something is winning, hell, you stick with it. This all happened because of losing the world title. Otherwise I might be doing the same thing."
Instead, Bezic joined with longtime coach Linda Leaver and uncovered in Boitano a skater of previously unsuspected depth. On the ice, this unassuming sort becomes arrogant, brooding, romantic, evocative and well-nigh perfect. At the U.S. nationals last month in Denver, Boitano skated a seemingly effortless and vivid short program to a French turn of the century composition and received eight perfect scores of 6.0, to set a men's national record.
So, for the first time in his career, Boitano finds himself discussed in terms of style and elegance rather than sheer athletics. Even the issue of his famed quadruple-loop jump, the unprecedented four-revolution leap that he has never landed in competition in four tries, has faded somewhat. Chances are that Boitano will not attempt the strenuous move in Calgary, because it is not needed and also because it distracts from his suave skating, he and Leaver say.
Why it took Boitano so long to arrive at this form has partly to do with his fixation on athleticism, partly with a reticent personality uneasy with expressing himself, and partly with the meticulous building of a champion. A sweet-natured type whose ambitions beyond the Olympics are small -- to open an Italian restaurant in San Francisco -- he also is a driven competitor who was always preoccupied with technique.
"It takes a mature person to skate this way," Leaver said. "He's just now learned to get into the music, to feel the emotion and skate from his heart. This was the last piece to come together."
Boitano's bent towards athleticism was evident the day he enrolled in Leaver's skating class at 8 years old and learned five jumps in the first hour. Since then, Boitano and his coach, a "39-year-old and holding" mother of two, have developed a 16-year partnership, rare in a sport that does not favor long friendships. They finish each other's sentences and frequently don't need to speak at all, merely exchanging glances.
"We're almost the same person," he said. "The best way to put it is that when I have a bad day, she has a bad day."
Leaver contends that Boitano always has had a more lyrical side, but that he was more interested in pressing the physical boundaries of the sport first. It was a calculated move by the two of them; to be marked as a successor to Hamilton by the judging community, Boitano had to consistently progress ahead of his age group. In 1982 as just a teen-ager, he became the first American to land a triple axel in competition. The next year, he became the first skater to land six triple jumps in a competition.
"I had to be Mr. Technical," he said. "Because it was essential to climb the ranks quickly. I did what I thought was best."
But ultimately to the unpracticed eye, and even sometimes the practiced, most of the jumps and spins and footwork become blurred. Coach Carlo Fassi, who developed Peggy Fleming and Robin Cousins, once remarked that he could barely tell a quad from a triple. What Bezic found when she took over his choreography last spring was a technically overladen skater who "was like a beautiful person wearing too much jewelry."
Bezic stripped away his old moves and music and started over with clean, classical routines. Tailoring elegant militaristic themes that suited his reserve, she brought out the technical feats without making them appear laborious as they had before. Now, in pieces like his 4 1/2-minute long program to Carmine Coppola's score of "Napoleon," they appear brilliantly effortless.
"What I didn't want to do was have Brian skate like a skater pretending to be a dancer," she said. "He didn't need flash and height. All he needed was line and clean technique. It was the less is more concept. So the true Brian would come through."
But drawing him out took time. Boitano was uncomfortable with the arrogant persona Bezic wanted. He has long been plagued by nerves, to the point of losing sleep before events, and is unsure of his superiority over even his Olympic teammates Paul Wylie and Christopher Bowman. "I had the worst nightmare," he said at the nationals. "I dreamed I got to the competition and Christopher Bowman was wearing the same thing."
But Bezic convinced him to approach the routines as roles, and he soon found himself enjoying the theatrics.
"It shows a side of myself that might be cocky, but I can leave it on the ice," he said. "Usually I don't feel that way, because I'm insecure. If I go out there and slip up, I know I'm going to look stupid. So it was hard. I had to practice it every day. I don't think I'll ever be arrogant."
But Boitano is more self-assured. Having suffered through the caprices of a sport in which subjectivity is rampant, he has finally decided to simply skate the way he feels comfortable. There are few traces of the stern Mr. Technical who loathed to watch himself on videotape.
He accepted two recent disappointing performances philosophically. At the Skate Canada in January, he skated his Napoleonic long program wonderfully, only to watch the gold go to Orser. At the U.S. nationals, he won the gold medal after a long routine flawed by two near falls. Neither bothered him. "I have so much confidence in that program," he said. "Mostly because I've come to love it."
Even the loss to Orser in the worlds is beginning to look like a partial blessing. Not only did it force Boitano to reevaluate, but it might have provided him with some additional perspective. He has both won and lost a world title, while Orser is a first-time champion experiencing incalculable pressure.
"After those two years, winning the worlds and then losing them, you just come to the conclusion that life is not going to change," Boitano said. "And that leaves one way to go, which is to be happy with the way you are."