CALGARY, FEB. 21 -- "I felt like angels were lifting and spinning me. After the triple flip, triple toe-loop, I had to tell myself, 'Don't be smiling all over the place.' "

-Brian Boitano, Olympic champion

For years, Brian Boitano was called the wooden puppet of figure skating. Perhaps the best technician ever, he gave his audience little but perfect axels and toe loops. He had an '86 world title, but did he have a personality?

No one ever will perpetrate that case of mistaken identity again. Few people in sports have shared an hour of glory with their public and their country as generously as Boitano has since his slim victory over Canada's Brian Orser here on Saturday night.

"It's a beautiful medal, isn't it?" said Boitano around midnight, pulling the gold from his pocket, studying it, right down to the tiny writing around the edge. "I'll give it to my mom. She'll put it on the front of the house. Maybe above the garage door."

"Wow," said Jenny Leaver, teen-age daughter of Boitano's coach Linda, as she lifted the medal. "Very wow."

As the girl studied the medal, Boitano studied the Olympic pins on her jacket lapel. "My God, you've really been tradin'," he said. "Who'd you hit up for that one?"

"He's the neatest guy," whispered the girl to a friend. "I've never met such a nice sports figure. They're mostly stuck up. He's always like that, too."

Great athletes are always in danger of losing their humanity, or enough of it to give their lives an unaccountable, but damaging chilliness. The world is going to have a tough time hardening Boitano's heart because, even if he has trouble showing it on the ice, he's got a large one.

On the victory stand, Boitano was nearly as concerned for Orser's sorrow as for his own joy. "I almost felt guilty feeling great. I was trying to hold back so that me feeling great wouldn't make him feel worse. I felt it was important not to gloat," Boitano said today. "There's not too much you can say. I knew exactly how he felt. There were words left unsaid."

But there were also a few words said. As Boitano stood atop the medal stand, Orser, who has now stood one step lower in two straight Olympics (having finished second to American Scott Hamilton in 1984), asked a question to which he will never have his own private answer: "Is it a moment?"

"Yeah," said Boitano. "But you know, just like Cincinnati."

Just like Cincinnati. Where Orser took the world championship away from Boitano last year. Maybe the Olympics isn't exactly like Cincinnati. But Boitano wanted Orser to think so.A Time for Talking

Boitano usually does not talk too much. He and Leaver, his coach for 16 years, usually communicate with their eyes. But, under the wine of victory, Boitano talked deep into the night.

"Since I was a child, I had heard that nobody won an Olympics skating their best. Scott Hamilton, Robin Cousins, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill. They all say they won with less than their best. I wanted to break it. That doesn't have to be. You have to work your life so you can be strong enough to go out there and nail it."

"That was the kind of performance that happens once in a blue moon," said Boitano's choreographer, Sandra Bezic. "As soon as he came off the ice, he said, 'I did it. Now it doesn't matter. That's my best.' "

Even Boitano was stunned by his act. "I always find fault with myself," he said. "I have a judgmental side that looks for the negative and tears me down. I named him Murphy, after Murphy's Law, so I could tell him, 'Murphy, shut up.' "

By this morning, after Boitano had watched replays, Murphy was in complete retreat. "This is the first time in my life it looked better than it felt," he said. "I saw so many things I've never done before. Where I should emote, God, I actually did it . . .

"I can live my life knowing that I did it when I had to."

Turning his medal over and over like a big coin, Boitano said, "I only want to use this for good ways. I want to let kids know that an Olympic gold medalist is touchable, not special. They all have it inside them."

For all his purist talk about giving his best, Boitano freely confesses that he deeply wanted gold, not silver. All week, as U.S. Olympians failed, Boitano would be stopped in the village by American athletes who said, "Come on, you gotta win the gold for us."

"I've never been so proud to be an American, probably because I've never felt so much support," said Boitano. "So many people sent messages. Not 'Go for the Gold' stuff, but 'We don't care. You're still the best.' "

When U.S. teammate Chris Bowman, a practical joker, found Boitano backstage and told him he'd won, it was no what-will-be-will-be juncture. "Don't be joking with me," snapped Boitano. "This is not something to joke about."

The whole evening had been a bad joke to Orser, who carried Canada on his 142-pound back. He caught every bad break. Boitano got to skate first: "It was an edge. I love to skate first. You don't think."

So, Orser had to wait until Boitano's high marks were posted -- the position he hates because "it's a little extra pressure . . . I knew there was a small margin to slip into if I skated my best . . . Actually, I felt I dealt with everything very well . . . the pressure I was under, not just tonight but the last six months . . . a tremendous pressure."

Few doubt that pressure made the tiny difference. "When I finished I thought I'd done it," said Orser. "For a moment there, I thought I had won."

Then, he realized that a small slip and, far more important, an on-ice decision to turn a significant triple jump into a child's-play double, would undo him. "I was feeling tired," said Orser. "Looking back, maybe I should have tried it. Hindsight is always 20-20. That could have made the difference."

How could Orser feel tired? Leave it to Boitano to offer the perfect explanation/excuse for his foe/friend.

"Everything {in figure skating} is cake compared to this," said Boitano. "In such a heavy event, the nerves eat away at your energy. By the time you're confronted with the moment, your energy is just zapped. That's why, day by day, you have to know how to relax."

Orser has borne up well, so far, to Canada's undisguised disappointment. "I didn't skate my absolute best," he said. "But my parents told me they love me. What else can they say? My father is the proudest man in Calgary."

Then Orser looked sideways at Boitano and said, "Second proudest."