Peter Oppegard has his strangest thoughts just before he falls asleep, half-formed visions of figure skating partner Jill Watson falling through the air in some kind of perilous way. Those frequently become an unfortunate reality for Watson, who greets his acrobatic visions like a magician's assistant about to be sawed in half. "I go, 'Oh my God,' " she said.
These vague dozes eventually manifest themselves in an innovative, sometimes frightening choreography that makes Watson and Oppegard the designated U.S. hopefuls for a medal at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. The strapping Oppegard, 6 feet, 175 pounds, twirls the 5-foot Watson through the air like a cat on a string, drops her headfirst to within a heart-stopping inch of the ice, or drags her across the floor in a primal death scene. They have even broken their noses together.
They are the heirs apparent to 1984 silver medalists Peter and Kitty Carruthers and the first U.S. pair with a true opportunity to capture a gold since Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, whose hopes ended when Gardner was injured shortly before the Games. But above all, they are unique, and that quality could make them challengers to the dominant world champion Soviets, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, expected to win the gold.
"We do originality," Oppegard said. "We throw out any preconceived idea of what a pairs team should be."
Generally, pairs teams have been regarded as delicate little creatures who resembled something off the top of a wedding cake. Pretty lifts and spins, figurine-like spirals and an occasional double axel constituted the bulk of the action.
That is one reason the stern Soviet teams, with their emphasis on fundamentals, dominated the Olympic and world championship medals. Not since 1960 have the Soviets failed to skate away with the gold.
That Watson and Oppegard have a chance to interrupt the Soviet medal procession was shown at the 1987 world championships in Cincinnati. Their stylized, abstract program to a piece of music called "Firebird" garnered them an unexpected bronze medal and a riotous standing ovation. It was the best world championship showing by a U.S. team in five years, and it was a crucial one because it allowed the United States to take three teams to Calgary instead of two.
Perhaps as important, they received two sets of second-place marks, one from the Soviet judge. Oppegard and Watson took that as proof that what they were doing was working, and as permission to become even more outrageous, working with choreographer Rita Lowery on the routine they will take to Calgary, a dramatic affair to the tragic opera "Madame Butterfly."
"After Cincinnati it was different," Watson said. "The Russians have dominated the pairs and they're obviously very strong. But I don't feel they're unbeatable anymore."
Lowery, with a background in ice shows, and Oppegard with his imagination, have produced a dramatic piece that draws gasps. It premiered at the U.S. national championships last month in Denver, where they won the gold medal. It is calculated to shock, and while sensationalism is sometimes frowned on by rigid international judges, it is also widely appealing.
"Good taste is never in bad form," Oppegard said.
The routine includes their traveling death spiral, Watson reclining in an arc while Oppegard hauls her across the ice. But their signature is The Swoop, a move that begins with Oppegard lifting a prone Watson high above the ice as he skates. She takes a header out of his grip in a death-defying free fall that ends when Oppegard catches her just before she crashes into the ice.
"We try to get her to look like she's falling out of an airplane," he said. She demured: "It's not really that dangerous."
The world championships were an indication of how far the pair had come since they began together just a little over two years ago. In 1985, after skating together just nine months, they won a U.S. title.
Watson and Oppegard began as individual skaters, she out of Bloomington, Ind., at age 12, and he from Knoxville, at 6. They gave up individual competition because they tried partners and liked it.
"I could see an immediate goal," he said. "Putting a girl over your head. It was instant gratification. For a guy, that was an ego trip."
Watson went on to compete in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo with Burt Lancon, finishing sixth. Meanwhile, Oppegard, frustrated by a series of partners unwilling to work as hard as him, considered joining an ice show.
Upon meeting Watson, Oppegard found she was as much of a competitor as he was. Both are strong skaters, who immediately found they could do a wide range of athletic maneuvers, and that led to a mutual confidence they didn't have with other partners.
"In personalities and physically, we just clicked," he said.
The result is a reciprocal enjoyment of riskiness. She is sure enough of him to succumb to his wild ideas, and he is confident enough of her to suggest just about anything that strikes him.
"A lot of times we'll work on something for a while, and it turns into something else," Watson said. "I don't say no because we don't want any restrictions."
They looked much like any other pair when they won their '85 national championship, and were still fairly conventional when they finished second in 1986.
But as they improved together, they also became bored with the same old routines, and that's when Oppegard began his late night journeys. The result is a balance between technical confidence and artistic enjoyment that has produced a chic trend in pairs skating.
"We started throwing out the rules and really enjoying ourselves," Oppegard said. "After two years of trying to fit a mold, we wanted to expand. We started leading instead of following."