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Original Issue

He Did A Bang-Up Job

Brian Boitano gave it his best shot and won the U.S. crown

This is what figure skating has come to. At the end of his two-minute short program—with the William Tell Overture (a.k.a. the Lone Ranger's theme) swelling throughout the arena—curly-haired Mark Cockerell whipped both hands up and out, pointing his index fingers like imaginary six-shooters. He aimed them at the panel of judges. Bang! Bang! Yer dead. This is his patented socko finish to a number full of high good spirit. Just kidding, judges.

Cockerell's routine never fails to leave the crowd whooping. Even some of the judges at last week's 1985 United States Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City permitted themselves a weary smile as they punched in his scores on their computers. O.K., Mark. Bang! Bang! Yer second.

But wait. There was even more such gunplay in K.C. In his short program, Brian Boitano skated a James Bond number to those familiar old themes From Russia with Love and The Spy Who Loved Me. In a skintight dark blue costume and wearing black gloves, Boitano ended his routine by dropping into a 007 crouch and also shooting an imaginary gun, no doubt a Beretta. Ah, but he didn't point at the judges; he aimed at the far end of the arena. Bang! Oh my God! He just shot Dick Button.

When the pretend-gunsmoke cleared, the new men's champ—and successor to 1984 Olympic and four-time world champion Scott Hamilton, now a pro skater—was Bond, er, Boitano, 21, of Sunnyvale, Calif., who skates the most dangerous program in the sport, taking more risks than even Hamilton did. Boitano throws seven triple jumps and three double jumps into his four-minute final program, during which he seemingly spends more time in the air than on the ice. Runner-up Cockerell, now the new old man of skating at 22, attacks with the same in-your-face style. Both are veterans of the U.S. team, having been No. 2 and No. 3 behind Hamilton for the last two years. Boitano had finished fifth in the Sarajevo Games and sixth in the world meet that followed, while Cockerell had come in 13th in both. Fittingly, neither coasted to what looked like an automatic inheritance of the first and second spots. In the 15-man final field, "Everybody was scrambling," said Cockerell, "and you had to dig down deep to stay ahead of those guys. Man, they were all hungry."

But then, Cockerell has been starved for years: This was his ninth appearance at the nationals, dating back to when he was 12, a junior skater and a cheeky Irish-American kid out of Burbank. And although he won the junior world title in 1976, the top U.S. spot has always been slightly out of reach. "The kids in this sport are starting to call me Cycle 4—as in the canned food for older dogs," he said. "You know, the stuff that starts at Cycle I for puppies."

He patted the top of his head and an obviously receding hairline. "Look, all this competition is making me go bald," he said. "When I finally turn pro—who knows when that'll be—and I can afford it, the first thing I'm going to do is get me a transplant."

The first thing Boitano is going to do, he said, is win the world championship. "Getting to this spot was like going over a tall mountain," he said. "But right now I'm doing things out there that have never been done on ice before. Sometimes it seems like I don't do anything but skate; I'm training six hours a day, six days a week."

Even school has been put aside for now. A former student at De Anza junior college in Cupertino and the youngest of four children, Boitano still lives at home with the folks. Though he participates in the U.S. Figure Skating Association's funding grant program, it helps that his dad, Lou, is regional vice-president of a California savings and loan association.

If the men's competition was heady, the battle among the women was downright shaky in spots—punctuated, as it was, by the steady crash of falling bodies. Bui there was no stopping Tiffany Chin, 17, of Toluca Lake, Calif., who as expected blew everybody away with a flawless program in the finals. What had not been expected was the ascent of Debi Thomas, also 17, of San Jose, Calif., who had been sixth-ranked nationally but came on like a whirlwind.

When the scrambling was over, there was Thomas in the No. 2 spot, and now the U.S. women have a Chinese-American and a black playing the leading roles. "I mean, it's definitely America," said Thomas with a wide grin. "You know, America is a mixture—and now we're finally getting to see that mixture in figure skating."

And thus did a new national team rise from the ashes of post-Olympic retirement. Gone with Hamilton are the 1984 U.S. women's champion Rosalynn Sumners and Elaine Zayak and the U.S. champion pair of Peter and Kitty Carruthers, who were succeeded last week by Jill Watson, 21, and Peter Oppegard, 25. And it was clear by the end of the proceedings in Kansas City that, instead of having to undergo a traditional rebuilding period, America will now skate forward in stronger shape than anybody had expected.

"It's going to be shakeup time in Tokyo in a few weeks," said Cockerell, referring to next month's world championships. And he has a chance to be one of the shakers; he, too, has seven triple jumps in his freestyle routine, two of them coming in tricky combinations. "It leaves me weak, with badly cramped muscles. But, man, I love it, going after them with stuff like that."

For Boitano, there's even more flying in his future. As if all those triples aren't enough, he has already mastered a quadruple jump, four full aerial revolutions, a stunt no one has done in competition. Boitano does the quad perfectly in practice—well, most of the time. For now, he's saving it for the most dire competitive emergencies, because if one misses a quad, one figures to bust up the whole arena with the ensuing crash. "Still," Boitano says, "it could be a big boost when I need it."

And at that the new champ gets that James Bond look on his face, as he sizes up his imaginary competition: Bang! Yer all dead.



Boitano's high-risk program includes seven triple jumps and, in a pinch, a quadruple.



[See caption above.]



With Hamilton gone, Boitano and Cockerell are the big guns.