PARIS -- Surya Bonaly's world is spinning, a reflection not of her state of mind but of the physical realities for an ice skater who spends as much time in midair as on her feet.
Those who question whether figure skaters are athletes may find the answer embodied in Bonaly, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who stunned the sport by winning the recent European championships, the first Frenchwoman to hold that title.
For Bonaly, skating is much more than gliding across the smooth surface of the ice, dipping and waltzing to the music. Skating is something to be tackled joyfully, with leaps and twirls that take the breath away.
Her routine for the European championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, included seven triple jumps and she landed five.
Still, she hopes to add something for the world championships, March 12-17 in Munich: the first quadruple jump performed in competition by a woman.
"Quickly," she said. "Before Midori Ito."
It is not the first time Ito, the gravity-defying 1989 world champion from Japan, has inspired Bonaly. In 1986, Bonaly first saw Ito skate and decided "that was it," said Bonaly's mother, Suzanne, a physical education instructor who works on her daughter's off-ice conditioning.
"For a while, Debi Thomas was my role model," Surya said, referring to the American skater who, like Bonaly, is one of the few blacks to achieve international prominence in figure skating.
Thomas went into the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary as a favorite with Germany's Katarina Witt for the gold medal and led after the first two rounds of competition. But she fell during her original program and finished third.
"When she fell, I had to replace her," said Bonaly.
She is a former tumbling champion who has skated practically since she could walk and works out six to seven hours a day. She pursues her high school studies independently.
It is a difficult life, but Bonaly shrugs and smiles. "She's an original," said her mother.
For the past six years, her training has been based in Champigny, an unassuming suburb of Paris. She works out at a modest rink that is more befitting the group of preteens who followed her onto the ice after a recent morning workout than the champion of Europe and three-time French national champion.
But this is home, and she does not plan to leave either the rink or Didier Gailhaguet, her coach since she and her parents moved here from Nice a half-dozen years ago, Suzanne Bonaly said.
"She is more than just a skater," her mother said by way of explaining the choice. "There are other things."
She is a sporting sensation in France. Perhaps it is because Bonaly is a skater in a country with little memory of skating greatness despite the ice dancing daring of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, silver medalists in the European championships. Or perhaps it is because Bonaly was born in Reunion, a French island off Madagascar, and came to France only after being adopted as a baby.
A good showing in the world championships perhaps could turn heads, but Bonaly doesn't see a medal as likely. "Not this year," she said.
There will be Ito to contend with, and defending world champion Jill Trenary of the United States, if she has recovered from mid-January ankle surgery that prompted her to say she will skip next week's U.S. national championships.
There is also rising American star Kristi Yamaguchi, fourth in the 1990 world championships and No. 2 in the United States. Yamaguchi, like Bonaly, is as comfortable above the ice as on it.
Perhaps, Bonaly allows, 1992 might be her year, when the Winter Olympics come to Albertville, France. But then surprises are her forte: She was fourth in the European championships in 1990 and had no expectations of winning this time around.
These European championships and the world championships are, like Bonaly, something new. Gone are the school figures, exacting tracings of figure eights on ice. The school figures, or compulsories, played to the strength of the more sedate and disciplined skaters and their absence is a sort of liberation for those in the mold of the expressive Ito and Bonaly.
"It has changed our life," said Suzanne Bonaly.
The compulsories counted for 20 percent of a skater's total score, with the short program worth 30 percent and the free-wheeling long program 50 percent. Now, it is 33.3 percent for the short program and 66.7 for the long.
But even without the compulsories, the preferences of the judges, the favored styles and routines, are important factors. So ask Bonaly if she is an athletic skater and she is quick to tell you she is both athletic and artistic.
She has worked for two years on adding a quadruple jump to her program and says she has completed the jump in practice and exhibition.
"I think it is best to be the first girl to do it," said Suzanne.
Judges are not always as impressed as audiences with such feats and the mere accomplishment of the unique does not ensure a gold medal. But that does not worry the Bonalys.
"Never mind the place," said Suzanne, "just do it."