Kristi Yamaguchi a swallow of a girl at 4'11" and 82 pounds, did the impossible at the Baltimore Arena last weekend: She upstaged the ladies' champion at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Not that stealing Jill Trenary's limelight was the only thing the 17-year-old Yamaguchi accomplished. She won the pairs competition outright with her 19-year-old partner, Rudi Galindo. She also won the free skating portion of the ladies' singles, pulling herself up to second overall behind Trenary—a placing that made Yamaguchi the first woman to medal in two events at the nationals since Margaret Graham did so in 1954. And she giggled a lot.
But make no mistake, girlish as this high school senior from Fremont, Calif., appears off the ice, she exhibits a natural, unaffected elegance when she skates. That, coupled with a jumping prowess second only to that of Japan's Midori Ito, makes Yamaguchi one of the most exciting figure skating prospects in years, American or otherwise.
Indeed, one of the appealing things about these nationals in a post-Olympic year is that defending champions have moved on, and a new crop of hopefuls is vying for the top spots. Of course, all that may change in 1990, when at the biennial International Skating Union (ISU) meetings in New Zealand, the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) plans to propose that the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, be opened to pro skaters. "I'd say there's less than a 50-50 chance of its being passed in 1990, but it's coming," says Dr. Franklin Nelson, a U.S. representative to the ISU. "Eyes are opening fast."
The measure would allow Brian Boitano to defend his gold medal in '92, but until it passes, Christopher Bowman appears to be the top dog among American men. At Baltimore, the much-anticipated battle between the 21-year-old Bowman and Harvard's Paul Wylie, 24, failed to materialize when Wylie skated poorly in the compulsory figures and the original program—formerly known as the short program—putting himself so far back that the best he could do was finish third behind Bowman and runner-up Daniel Doran.
Without Wylie to push him, Bowman pretty much had the show to himself. That he has become a skating heartthrob is refreshing in itself; but he is also a prankster with a Hitchcockian sense of the macabre. At the Olympics, Bowman delighted in terrorizing Wylie, who was his roommate, by mimicking Jason, the masked maniac in the Friday the 13th movies. And once he threw open the curtain while Boitano was showering and, a la Psycho, pretended to slash at him with a knife.
On the ice Bowman is only slightly less animated. He often mugs and preens, which detracts from his superb natural body line. Then again, because his footwork isn't particularly arresting, he has to do something between all those triples—he landed seven during his long, or free skating, program on Sunday. "Chris has a very American, show-business style," says his coach, Frank Carroll, who has worked with Bowman since he was five. "But I would like to see him tone it down for the worlds, where the judges are a little more stodgy. He was pulling out all the stops here because he was a little hyper about his first national title."
Trenary, the favorite for the ladies' title, went the opposite direction from Bowman, retreating into a shell of sorts. She won the singles in 1987 and finished second to Debi Thomas a year ago, so she was expected to use this event to distance herself from the kiddies and, at the ripe age of 20, establish herself as Katarina Witt's heiress apparent. But right from the start in Baltimore she was uncomfortable with her role. "This is my first competition as the favorite, and I feel it," she admitted last Thursday, a day after finishing first in the figures. "It's been a very stressful week."
That showed in both her original and free skating programs, as the ordinarily vivacious Trenary became tense and almost wooden in her movements—though, to her credit, she stayed on her feet. Skating conservatively, she won the original program on Thursday and, with her second national title firmly in hand, landed four of the five triples she had planned in Saturday's free skate. But she left the audience flat. Some skaters, like Bowman, play the crowd, and some seem to skate within a cocoon woven by the music. Trenary did neither. She was polished, but the sheer joy of skating was missing.
Yamaguchi, on the other hand, showed no stress to speak of. After starting the week with an eighth-place finish in figures, a discipline that, fortunately for her, will be abandoned after 1990, Yamaguchi took the championships by storm. Certainly she had a whirlwind schedule, somehow finding the time to practice or compete in both pairs and singles every day. "She's superhuman," said her pairs coach, Jim Hulick.
"Where does she get her strength?" wondered one USFSA official. "I've got plants that are thicker than her legs."
Wherever it comes from, Yamaguchi is indefatigable. "I don't think she ever thinks of being tired," said Christy Kjarsgaard, who has been her singles coach since 1982. "With her schedule, she couldn't."
She certainly didn't skate as though competing in two events were a strain. Yamaguchi and Galindo, who finished fifth in pairs at the 1988 nationals, blew away the competition on Friday night during the free skate. Employing music from the movie Romeo and Juliet, selected by Hulick to give his pair an older image, Yamaguchi and Galindo got a roar from the crowd by landing side-by-side triple flips and triple toe loops seconds apart—they are the only pair in the world to do the triple flip—and, later, by nailing perfectly executed side-bv-side double Axels. "I feel like all my prayers were answered," said the 37-year-old Hulick after his star pupils had taken the U.S. title—no small statement from a man who was diagnosed as having colon cancer last August and is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. He is delaying a biopsy on a tumor the doctors have recently found in his chest so that he can accompany the pair to the world championships in Paris, March 14-19. "I'm in ecstasy," Hulick said.
In the women's finals on Saturday afternoon, after fitting in four hours of sleep, Yamaguchi put the finishing touches on her captivating weekend by landing all seven triples in her long program, the seventh jump a difficult Lutz, 3:40 into the 4:10 routine. As she finally spun to a stop, flashing a dazzling smile that seemed to jolt the audience to its feet, Yamaguchi looked as fresh and unaffected as the day she arrived in Baltimore. Which, come to think of it, is how these nationals will probably be remembered: as the time Kristi Yamaguchi arrived.
Bowman, the Hollywood-born showman, was obviously delighted to taste gold at last.
Yamaguchi and Galindo thrilled the crowd with a death spiral in the pairs.
Trenary won the ladies' singles title as expected, but without any flashy moves.