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Original Issue

Queen For a Day

Nicole Bobek ruled at the nationals, but the ranks behind her are young and restless

For the second straight year, someone threw a wrench into a long-awaited coronation at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The parade floats took a surprise turn down an unforeseen avenue. The expected background music—a classical piece by Saint-Sa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•ns that Michelle Kwan had chosen—was interrupted by the sound track from Dr. Zhivago. The winner's sash was slung over the shoulders of the blonde, not the ponytailed kid with the dimpled, Kewpie-doll face.

Ready or not, America's newest ice princess is Nicole Bobek, a gum-chomping 17-year-old from Chicago who has changed coaches eight times in the past eight years and who has been known to sneak a smoke outside the rink now and then. At the Detroit Skating Club, her latest training ground, Bobek is known as Brass Knuckles because of her fondness for wearing 10 rings at a lime, one for each finger.

"I guess I'd say I'm a free spirit," Bobek said, shrugging happily last Saturday after she had won her first U.S. championship with a charismatic if technically unambitious performance in the four-minute free-skating program and then headed off the ice at the Providence Civic Center with her right hand patting her heart as though she might faint.

Only one skater remained after Bobek, and that was the heavily favored Kwan, a 14-year-old from Torrance. Calif., who finished second at these championships a year ago and who was trying to become the youngest ladies' champion in the event's 78-year history.

Kwan did nothing to dissuade anyone from the belief that she's a very good skater on a beeline toward greatness. But at times last week she looked every bit the ninth grader who went trick-or-treating with her older sister last Halloween and who still walks around with a teddy-bear knapsack. Although Kwan talked about feeling no pressure, she privately went to her coach, Frank Carroll, at one point in the week and said, "Why am I nervous?"

When it came time for her to skate her make-or-break long program last Saturday and she had to wait while Bobek's marks were being read, Kwan stuffed a finger in each ear to block out the rink announcer's voice as he pealed out, "Five-eight, five-nine, five-nine...."

If Kwan had skated cleanly she would have won. Instead, she lurched into one triple-jump landing and fell to the ice on another. When Bobek, who was waiting backstage, was finally told that she had won, she sobbed on the shoulder of Richard Callaghan, her coach of just eight months. Instead of breaking into her usual kooky, lopsided grin, Bobek found that her bottom lip was quivering. "The score can't be right. It can't be right. There must be some mistake," she said.

By the time she arrived at her post-competition press conference, the gold medal slung around her neck, she was giving her mother, Jana, credit and giving Callaghan credit and giving training partner and new men's national champion Todd Eldredge credit. She gushed about her newfound values: "Perseverance...following the rules...and old-fashioned hard work." And one reporter—noting the irony of a self-proclaimed "wild child" raving about old-fashioned virtues—asked Bobek, "Is it safe to say you've found some old-time religion now too?"

That ended Bobek's giddy soliloquy. Her right eyebrow flew up, and she was just about to let an answer fly when Callaghan cut her off with, "Let's not push this thing too far, O.K?"

Bobek's victory was the biggest surprise at the U.S. nationals since, well, the bizarre 1994 championships, when a woman with whom Bobek has often been compared—Tonya Harding, Queen of the Do-It-Yourself Oil Change—walked away with the title that Nancy Kerrigan seemed destined to lake home. As with Harding, things just seem to happen to Bobek. In 1992 she was rushed into the operating room for an emergency appendectomy and nearly died when her lungs collapsed. At the 1993 world junior championships Bobek competed with blood oozing out of a gash in her right thigh after cutting herself with her skate blade on a jump landing. In 1994 she arrived at a competition in Philadelphia sporting bile marks on her neck, the result of an improbable attack by a friend's Labrador retriever. Bobek also changed coaches three times last year.

The constant for Nicole has been her mother, a Czech èmigrè who fled her country at age 21 when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Jana Bobek and a friend, Joyce Barron, have raised Nicole together. Every time Nicole has moved to skate, they've moved too, unloading a home or, most recently, selling Jana's Colorado Springs tanning salon.

After all that, Bobek had won just two titles of note before Saturday's triumph. And both of those—the Olympic Festival and the Vienna Cup in Austria—came in 1991. "That's why when I thought about training her, I figured, What have I got to lose?" Callaghan said.

Callaghan knew Bobek's faults: her so-so jumping ability, her tendency to bridle at hard training, her problems with diet and weight. But he also knew she was an arresting on-ice presence: The most-told Bobek story is about how George Steinbrenner saw her skate once, then cut a $15,000 check to help her train. But what Bobek had never done was to put together back-to-back strong programs in a major competition.

So the coach laid down stiff work rules and sold Bobek on the importance of showing up in fighting trim. Callaghan also issued an important edict: Although Bobek could choreograph her own programs, she could no longer improvise in mid-program when the crowd and the spirit moved her. At such moments, Eldredge says with a laugh, "she was liable to throw in just anything out there."

Bobek accepted the rules and headed to Providence with a modest goal: to get the judges to take her seriously again.

"Never," she said, "did I expect this."

But comebacks turned out to be the repeated story line here. Even the sport itself felt smeared by last year's Harding-Kerrigan affair—the whacking of Kerrigan's knee and the subsequent revelation that Harding's camp was responsible. Now, as lousy as it may sound, that has turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to American figure skating. Enrollment in basic skating courses has tripled, says USFSA president Claire Ferguson. USFSA executive director Jerry Lace said that his federation's TV sponsorship revenue increased $4.3 million in the past year. And there are now more skating tours, ersatz competitions and made-for-TV specials than you can track. Ferguson believes the only thing in recent memory that compares with skating's growth is the boom Mary Lou Retton sparked in American gymnastics—with this distinction: "What happened in gymnastics happened for a nice reason."

Granted. But the winners at these championships—which determined the two men, two women, two pairs and one ice dancing couple who will go to the world championships next month—reintroduced the feel-good ending to this event. Eldredge won his third U.S. championship, and his first after a four-year drought. The win sends him winging to the worlds in Birmingham, England, with a 4-0 record in major competitions since last October and a genuine shot at victory. In the most stunning performance of the championships, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand won the pairs with a bravura long program that pulled the crowd to its feet before they had even finished. Scads of floral bouquets pelted down like slanting rain, and six of the nine judges responded with perfect 6.0's. News of those marks will make its way across the Atlantic before Meno and Sand waft down at the worlds—if they ever come back to earth.

And Bobek? In addition to rehabilitating her image as a slacker, her victory quieted the caterwauling heard early in the week. Kwan was regarded as such a sure thing that many in Providence had already turned their eyes toward the junior ranks, suggesting that Kwan's most dangerous foil in 1996 might be Tara Lipinski, a 4'6", 69-pound phenom from Sugarland, Texas, who already throws seven triple jumps into her long program.

That was sheer lunacy, of course. Sure, ABC's Prime Time Live shot a feature on the 12-year-old Lipinski, and a rash of newspapers did glowing features on her. And Lipinski was brought in for two press conferences, where she spoke excitedly about loving the cameras, loving the roar of the crowds. Her coach, Jeff DiGregorio, spoke of having to fend off agents.

Soon hard questions were being asked: How long before skating is like gymnastics, a sport overrun by kiddie stars with tiny bodies? And what inducements might an agent offer a 12-year-old? All the Happy Meals she can eat?

At last the hype stopped. Lipinski finished second to 15-year-old Sydne Vogel of Anchorage in the juniors. And 24-year-old Tonia Kwiatkowski, the eventual third-place women's finisher, beat Bobek and Kwan in the 2⅖-minute short program (good for one third of the final score).

There were no children in the men's competition—Eldredge, of South Chatham, Mass., and second-place finisher Scott Davis, of Great Falls, Mont., are both 23—but there was plenty of angst. Davis, last year's national champion, came to Providence in a slump that dated from his flops in the Olympics and the world championships. The more he and coach Kathy Casey strain to explain his collapses, the more it sounds like stage fright. In most of Davis's competitions now, panicky thoughts seize him as he awaits his turn on the ice. "It'll be something like, What if Eldredge hits his triple Axel?" Davis says.

Thinking that more performance experience might help him conquer the problem, Casey bade Davis to work a 60-city, 70-show tour last spring and summer. When Davis had completed the tour and was still floundering, Casey decided on one more elaborate strategy: twice-weekly mock competitions, complete with warmups, loudspeaker introductions, costumes and judges. "I was at a loss," Casey admits.

Davis's first-place standing as he headed into Saturday's free-skating program was only momentarily exhilarating. He grew more "panicky"—Casey's word—as his closing performance ground on, spinning out of a triple flip, putting his hand to the ice, landing a triple Axel and trimming a triple Lutz to a double. Eldredge, meanwhile, lit out with a stylish long program studded with eight triple jumps. After nearly quitting the sport in 1993, Eldredge has clawed back this close. "I don't think I ever wanted anything in my life more than I wanted this," he said.

Now Eldredge has his title, Bobek has hers, and notice has been served. When it comes to U.S. nationals, expect the unexpected, and watch out for the brass-knuckled, steel-nerved comeback kids.



She's just 17, but Bobek (opposite) is already an old pro compared with Lipinski, who's all of 12.



A determined Eldredge (left) jumped past Davis, whose nerve failed him.



Kwan (above center, with fourth-place finisher Kyoko Ina) slid to silver; Meno and Sand sailed to gold.



[See caption above.]