Silver anniversary of a golden moment

Chicago Tribune

It was Feb. 20, 1988, a Saturday night in Calgary, where the first week of the Winter Olympics was ending.  And the figure skating event called “The Battle of the Brians,” had reached its final round.

The champion would be whichever Brian won the free skate: Orser of Canada, the 1987 world champion and 1986 runner-up, or Boitano of the United States, the 1986 world champion and 1987 runner-up.

To that point, neither of their countries had won a gold medal in this North American Olympics, so the pressure on both skaters – especially Orser – was stifling.

It would turn out to be the best men’s figure skating competition in the nine Winter Olympics I have covered.

And, exactly 25 years ago this Wednesday, Boitano won it with the finest men’s Olympic skating performance of my more than three decades writing about the sport.

Why the superlatives? The answer is in the video accompanying this story.

To sum it up: no other men’s Olympic skating champion since 1980 has combined such artistry and athletic ability to do the performance of a lifetime when it counted most.

"It was the best performance I've ever seen a skater do," 1988 Olympian and 1992 silver medalist Paul Wylie told me that night in Calgary. "In the pressure of the Olympics, you usually don't do your best."

(A brief aside: here are my other Olympic best performances: Women, Yuna Kim in 2010; Pairs – Gordeeva and Grinkov, also 1988; Dance – Torvill & Dean, 1984.  No. 2 to Boitano? Ilia Kulik in 1998.)

Six weeks earlier, at the U.S. Championships, Boitano had skated his short program with equal brilliance, getting eight perfect scores of 6.0 from the nine judges for presentation.

Why the italics?  Everyone pretty much had thought of Boitano as 90 percent athlete, 10 percent performer until the Olympic season, when work with choreographer Sandra Bezic – now an NBC commentator – transformed him.

At the time, Bezic seemed like Professor Henry Higgins of “My Fair Lady,” so completely was Boitano remade in the seven months after he ditched what was to have been a schlocky, cowboy-themed program (think Calgary Stampede) for the Olympic year free skate.

Instead, he did a convincing interpretation of scenes from a soldier’s life to music from Carmine Coppola's score for the 1927 film, "Napoleon" (not the TV mini-series, “Napoleon and Josephine,” as ABC reported on the air during the Olympic telecast, and I previously have written.)  But his short program was a mini-masterpiece, to music from Meyerbeer’s ballet “The Skaters.” The moment in the short program when he haughtily throws ice from his blade is a statement of just how much he commanded an ice surface, a feeling Boitano conveyed the same way during the march near the end of his free skate.

You need only watch the spread eagle and the two split jumps in the final 45 seconds of that free skate to see the aesthetic and athletic in perfect harmony.

It turned out that Bezic was just the first who found a way to draw out the artistic essence nascent in Boitano.  He would refine that in his years as a show skater – he still is performing, 10 months from his 50th birthday - into an unadorned richness of movement with a pure quality of edge work rarely seen on the ice.

As those years passed, as his fame waxed, waned slightly, then waxed again (thanks in no small part to the song, “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” from the South Park movie), the essence of Brian Boitano never changed.

He remained unfailingly loyal, unpretentious, devoted to his family, friends and craft, first as an ice skater, now as a talented chef with a Food Network Show, “What Would Brian Boitano Make?” and an eponymous cookbook coming out this year.  He is renovating his great-great-grandfather’s home in the hills outside Genoa.

Or, as the headline on Ann Killion’s Monday column about Boitano in the San Francisco Chronicle said, “What Can’t Brian Boitano Do?”

This is how I described him in a Tribune story that appeared the day of the 1988 Olympic short program:

Brian Boitano is far from a rebel. He glides comfortably through the figure skating establishment. He skates unscathed past its minefields of ostentation, unfettered egos, rumor-mongering, petty jealousies and overbearing parents.

Yet, in a world where conforming to a norm is too often a prerequisite for success, Boitano remains just as comfortably an outsider.

He is the one whose parents stopped coming to the rink as soon as he was old enough to drive himself.

He is the one whose training site near San Francisco is far from the Colorado and Los Angeles epicenters of skating gossip.

He is the one whose coach, Linda Leaver, stands out in a cloth coat amid peers resplendent in fur. . .

"No one has ever come this far with a total unknown coach," said Donna Boitano, the skater's mother, in a rare interview last month. "I can't tell you how many times people in the skating community told Brian to get rid of her."

Unlike many skating parents, the Boitanos stayed far in the background.  Their support, love and lack of desire to share their son’s fame were equally unconditional.

This is how they did share it: by giving Brian the strength of independence that would serve him so well during those four minutes and 30 seconds in Calgary.

Leaver still is Boitano’s coach.  She has also been his manager the past quarter-century.  Saturday night, at her home just north of San Jose, she is hosting a party for which the invitations read, “25 Years.  A Celebration for Brian.”

The words on the invitation were chosen carefully.  There is no mention of the gold medal.  And it is not called a celebration of Brian, but one for Brian.

He earned the right for such a celebration by the way he skated Feb. 20, 1988.  He has earned it over and over again by the way he has lived and the person he has been for every one of the 9,133 days since.

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