Skip to main content
Original Issue


The despised compulsories Jill Trenary exploited them a last time at the worlds

Call it the revenge of the compulsory figures, those arcane and archaic ice tracings that give the sport of figure skating its name. They are unloved by skaters, unfathomable to spectators and ignored by television, which is why, starting next year, the compulsories will go the way of the dodo bird. They have been voted out of existence by the International Skating Union.

But last week at the World Figure Skating Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the lame-duck compulsories—still worth 20% of the scoring—left a memorable epitaph in the elegant form of Jill Trenary, the new ladies' champion. If this was revenge, it was sweet, for the 21-year-old Trenary, a gracious and deserving winner, had paid her emotional dues on the road to her first world title.

This is not to say that the compulsories were the skating highlight of the week. That moment, celebrated by a two-minute standing ovation, belonged to Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, the French dance couple who are brother and sister. Skating to a long program that depicted, in a wrenching crescendo, the struggle for human rights in South America, the Duchesnays were easily the week's most charismatic and original performers. Of course, they have been that since bursting into prominence with their jungle program at the 1988 Winter Olympics. It's just that they have never been marked that way by the judges. An appreciative Soviet audience nearly rioted this year when, at the European championships in Leningrad, the Duchesnays were placed third, behind two Soviet couples. But in Halifax the judges finally gave in, awarding the Duchesnays five 6.0's for artistic impression in their long program, and the silver medal overall, behind defending champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko of the U.S.S.R.

In the men's competition, 23-year-old Kurt Browning became the first Canadian man to successfully defend his world championship. The victory turned around a season that had given his two principal rivals—Christopher Bowman of the U.S. and Viktor Petrenko of the Soviet Union—plenty of reason for hope. In February, Browning put on a disappointing show at the Canadian championships, barely prevailing over 17-year-old upstart Elvis Stojkow. Browning's training habits were questioned. His trademark quadruple toe loop had deserted him. And fans began wondering if his 1989 world title had been a fluke. Browning came to Halifax with a lot to prove.

So did Bowman, whose training habits this year had been openly repudiated by Frank Carroll, his longtime coach. Carroll has been singing variations on the same tune since the 22-year-old Bowman was five. "People don't know how I have literally had to drag this boy up the podium so that he is now the second in the world," Carroll recently said.

A month before the U.S. championships in Salt Lake City, Bowman, overweight and undertrained, finally began training seriously. During the championships he developed back spasms that made it painful to lift his arms, massacring his short program, and he withdrew from the competition. The crown of U.S. skating went to a likable and promising 18-year-old. Todd Eldredge from South Chatham, Mass. Bowman qualified because he had got a medal in 1989, but in Halifax a host of disapproving judges waited in ambush for him.

Going into last Thursday's free skating program, which was worth 50% of the scoring, the 20-year-old Petrenko had a slim lead over Browning and looked like a skater on the brink of greatness. But Petrenko has a history of running out of petrol. Sure enough, after landing a flawless triple Axel-triple toe loop combination in the opening seconds of his long program, Petrenko slowly wound down, completing only six of the eight triples he had planned and singling a double Axel during a strangely flat performance that left the door open for Browning.

Browning's style is nothing if not energetic, and in contrast to Petrenko, he dazzled the partisan crowd with such vitality that it seemed as if at the end of his 4½-minute program he was fully capable of running through the whole thing again. Even without his quad, which he turned into a triple toe loop-double toe loop at the last moment. Browning unleashed an impressive array of technical skills. And while a couple of the landings were rocky on his seven triple jumps, his was still the best performance of the night, good enough for the gold.

The last skater was Bowman, mired in fifth place after the compulsories and the short program. His Latin-style adlibbed long program can only be described as vintage Bowman. Preening before the judges, cha-cha-cha-ing to the audience, mugging for the cameras, he seemed to have skated straight off a Copacabana set where he had been cast in the role of a gigolo-waiter. Things were going fairly well until, about 30 seconds into his program, he stumbled on his triple Axel-double loop combination, whereupon the side of Bowman that he calls "Hans Brinker from hell" took over. Deciding that "Gee, this is a really good program, but I'm skating against Viktor and Kurt," Bowman chucked his prepared routine and began "jumping my brains out" to try to rack up a few more technical points.

The brains were the first to go. Next he ditched his triple loop and replaced it with a triple Axel. Unfortunately, the triple Axel has never been a Bowman forte, and he singled it. Then he inserted a triple loop in a spot where he had planned only footwork. All the attendant little touches, the arm movements and choreography that are months in the perfecting, were altered, replaced by "interesting movements," as Bowman would later describe them. Bowman was skating by the seat of his pants. Carroll watched, seething. "It is always interesting to see a student's new program unveiled at the world championships," he said dryly upon the event's conclusion. "I was in total shock. Yes, I am angry. I ask myself, Why do I have the only maniac in figure skating?"

Enough of the judges approved that the performance pulled Bowman up to third overall. But it was apparent to all who have watched Bowman over the past few years that unlike Petrenko and Browning he has stopped growing as a skater and is now on a level below those two, and falling fast. "It's also a feather in a coach's cap to medal at the worlds," Carroll said, "but would it have been better for Christopher to finish fourth and realize that he cannot do this kind of thing? Maybe. It's not my idea of what makes a world champion."

Tenacity. That is one of the things that makes a world champion, and Trenary, a three-time U.S. champion, has that quality in spades. She has stuck it out through good times and bad, has had unwanted labels hung on her, has performed in the shadows of the greats and the darlings, and yet has never given up on herself.

The last 12 months have been the hardest. Trenary went to the 1989 worlds in Paris as the Great Classical Hope. Coached by Carlo Fassi—which led to inevitable comparisons to his other champions, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill—Trenary was asked to carry the banner of figure skating's traditionalists, who were fearful that bounding little 14-year-old gymnasts were taking over the sport. The traditionalists wanted a lovely, well-rounded skater like Trenary to somehow bridge the gap between the theatrical but technically limited Katarina Witt and Japan's Midori Ito, who jumps around the rink like a porpoise. But the great showdown of 1989 never occurred, as Trenary skated poorly, finishing third after failing to try a number of her triple jumps.

It wasn't the first time that that sort of thing had happened, and people began writing her off. "The critics said a lot of things about me cracking under pressure," Trenary says. "I'm human and it hurts. But I've grown. I've learned to take the bad with the good. When I sat down last year to make a list of pros and cons about whether to turn professional, the main reason I stayed as an amateur was I knew I had a performance like the one I skated this year at nationals still in me. I wanted to get it out."

Trenary's long program at the U.S. championships was fabulous—elegant, athletic, stylish, the best she has skated in her life. Still, she arrived at Halifax a prohibitive underdog, even in her own mind. "It wasn't like I wasn't trying to win," Trenary said after she finished first in the compulsories and Ito 10th. "But I honest to god came here thinking that Midori was so far superior that this [Trenary's apparently insurmountable lead] is kind of a surprise to me."

Trenary, who has always skated her figures well, won what will someday be remembered as history's final ladies' compulsories, while Ito very nearly stopped midway through a loop that looked like an aerial view of a Santa Fe train yard. Trenary's other primary challengers, Kristi Yamaguchi of Fremont, Calif., and European champion Evelyn Grossmann of East Germany, were ninth and 12th, respectively. It was a cushion almost too big to believe.

Certainly it was too big to enjoy, and Trenary, who is pretty tightly strung to begin with, lay in bed the night before her short program thinking all sorts of bad thoughts. Unfortunately, that was also the night that the men's portion of the competition concluded, and skating officials had put Bowman in the hotel room next to Trenary. All night long people kept hammering on Bowman's door, trying to find the party that perpetually surrounds skating's irrepressible bad boy. Bowman, in fact, did not get back to his room until 6 a.m. He had been out all night with the Russians. But the damage was done. Trenary woke up in tears, having got three hours of sleep.

None of which would have been significant had Trenary not finished fifth in the short program. She doubled her triple toe-double toe combination, a jump she had been nailing in practice all week, and she was again accused of cracking under pressure. Meanwhile, Ito, who won the short program, was back in the hunt.

Ito needed help, though. Even if she were to score straight perfect 6.0's in Saturday's long program—and this is a flaw in the way figure skating is scored—she would still need to beat Trenary by two places in the free skating. Someone had to get in between them for Ito to win.

The effervescent Ito did squeeze three perfect 6.0's from the judges for technical merit, landing the best triple Axel—men's or women's—that was performed all week, a monumental triple Lutz and a triple toe-triple toe combination that nearly gyrated her through the end-boards. The crowd, captivated and charmed by the sheer joy of skating that Ito transmits, was on its feet before she had stopped her final spin.

The least surprised person in the building was Trenary, who had the difficult task of skating next. "I had such faith in her ability that I had prepared myself for those sixes," she said. The crowd quieted, the music began and a very different performance emerged—gutsy, yet polished and graceful. It wasn't perfect. Trenary had two less-than-graceful landings, one of them on a triple Salchow, but she pulled off four other, perfect triples, and most important, she attempted every element in her program. There was no holding back this time. It may have been Ito who best described Trenary's performance when she said, through a translator, "If I fail in my jumps, there's not much left. But with Jill you could take a picture of any moment and there is something happening."

Ito, who won both the short and the long programs, knew she had been beaten for the gold before Trenary's marks came up on the screen, and she turned away from the endboards in tears. Had Ito finished ninth in the compulsory figures instead of 10th, she would have won the world title.



Trenary's long program was good enough to save the title she nearly lost in the short.



Repeat champion Browning dazzled the judges with the vitality of his free skating.



In spite of superb skating, Ito lost her chance for a second title.



The innovative Duchesnays, brother and sister, won the crowd but finished second.