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Jim Murray

This Kid Will Try to Turn Cold to Gold

September 17, 1985|JIM MURRAY

When Chris Bowman was growing up in the Valley, he was such a hyperactive little child, the neighbors wondered whether it wouldn't be a good idea for his mother to put him on ice for a while.

So she did. For the next 15 years.

A clear-cut case of child abuse? Not exactly. Chris Bowman got to love ice. So much so that after the first couple of years, his parents panicked and tried to lure him off it. His father tried to coax him into Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, playground basketball. Chris would have none of it. He was as happy on ice as a penguin.

He's been on more of it in his 18 years than a polar bear. He does things on ice Nureyev couldn't do on stage or Gene Kelly on film.

Someone once said that if figure skating is a sport, so is the second act of "Carmen." "The Nutcracker Suite" should be scored like the pole vault. After all, the Chicago Bears don't have to set their second-half drives to music. The Dodgers don't rally to the strains of Franz Lehar. The World Series isn't choreographed.

But, if figure skating isn't quite sport, there can be no doubt that figure skaters are athletes. They do things with their bodies that only the great ones can do. No Dr. J going up for a layup by air, no Lynn Swann gliding out for a long one, no Willie Mays dashing under a line drive displayed more grace and agility, more sheer defiance of the laws of gravity and physics.

It was a perfect sport for a kid who couldn't sit still. It is tiring, exhilarating, time consuming, a perfect outlet for restlessness and it turned young Master Bowman from Dennis the Menace to a world-class figure who, now at the age of 18, stands on the brink of his greatest successes, which he hopes will bring an Olympic medal at Calgary in 1988, specifically the gold.

Figure skating used to be a stodgy sport, a boring endless tracing of school figures on ice, an exercise in penmanship similar to inscribing the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin.

These compulsory etchings in Figure 8s once counted for 60% of the scoring in the sport. But the great skaters, the free spirits, despised these as perfunctory mechanical skills. It was kind of like cutting diamonds. It demanded skill, not art, and to a man (or woman) they yearned for the great free-flowing expression of athletic ability that came in the freestyle aspect of the sport.

The great skaters, like Ronnie Robertson, who could do things on ice some guys needed a trapeze for, would finish third in the scoring to some guy whose main talent was skating backward on one edge at a creepy one mile an hour. Ronnie liked to do what he could do at 25 m.p.h. and in mid-air.

The public agreed with him. The public wouldn't pay to see some guy endlessly scratching Figure 8s for stooped judges to measure with magnifying glasses, but they paid scalper prices to see the gaudy entrechats, the breathless spinning and wild routines of the freestyle, and, where the economics goes, the sport goes. School figures now count only 30% of the total and are going down.

There are two freestyle segments now, the three-minute short program and the 4 1/2-minute finale at night, when the stands are full. The premium then is on athleticism and artistry, not floor-scrubbing.

The freestyle is where Chris Bowman excels. His is a high-risk program which, his teacher, Frank Carroll, explains, burns all the energy any hyperactive kid could muster.

It burns money, too. The payment for the ice time--world-class skating calls for six to eight hours a day on a rink--the travel, the instruction, the flashy clothes, is a six-figure investment for the Bowmans of Van Nuys, father Nelson and mother Joyce.

Even the music has to be carefully chosen. "The kids would all like heavy metal and punk rock, but the judges all want schmaltz--Schubert's "Serenade" or the "Merry Widow" waltz," Carroll said.

Young Christopher compromises. He skates his short program to the Latin beat of 'Tico Tico' and does his evening bravura to DeFalla's 'Ritual Fire Dance.'

The road to Calgary will begin this month for Bowman with a trip to England for the St. Ivel Ice International. Next will come the Skate International competition at St. Paul, important meets where the competition measures itself against one another and where Bowman, who finished second at the National Sports Festival in Baton Rouge this summer, must pit his best against Brian Boitano, America's current No. 1.

How ever the competition turns out, it must be admitted that Joyce Bowman found a long-term outlet for all that excess energy her baby boy showed all those years ago. She iced it down.

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