Still, that wasn't enough for Boitano. "He had a hard time leaving the world of competition," says his coach, Linda Leaver. So Boitano continued to compete in professional figure-skating events. He won 10 professional championships after his Olympic gold medal. In lots of sports, that would be considered a heightened achievement compared to his amateur Olympic victory. Professional competitions in other sports (the Super Bowl, the World Series) are deemed vastly superior to their amateur counterparts (the Rose Bowl, the College World Series). Professional figure-skating competitions, however, are often a mix of true athleticism and the kind of kitschy, crowd-pleasing antics professionals pick up, like ticks, from their ice-show experiences.
His "retirement" frustrated Boitano almost from the moment it began. He knew that he was skating better than ever. "His jumps were higher; he was skating faster; there was nothing in his skating that wasn't better," says Leaver. To prove it to the world, and himself, Boitano petitioned the International Skating Union in 1990 to open the sport to professionals and amateurs alike. When eligibility was relaxed for the 1992 Games--but not enough to include Boitano--he kept pushing, hoping for another chance. "If you're a real skater, you'll always wonder if you still have it," he said. "I'd like to be known for skating when I die, and I can't unless I put it on the line."
Boitano, it seemed, didn't fear losing, nor did he fear that his gold medal would be tarnished if he proved unsuccessful in future Olympic Games. "I may have the worst night of my life," he said, "but even if I were to lose, I think there's a message (in) that . . . about wanting to do what you want to do and not being scared of the consequences."
Such bravado had already meant six years outside amateur competition and a public tussle with the skating hierarchy. It would also mean 18 months of grueling training and, finally, an ego-bruising fight for a spot on the 1994 U.S Olympic Team. But in the end, he did what he wanted to do. Four days from now, Boitano, 30 years old, injury prone and competing against the best men's field in recent memory, will once again "put it on the line" at the Olympic Games.
BOITANO HAS WHITE SKIN STRETCHED tightly over a prominent forehead and an angular, bony face. He looks like an ascetic, a 13th-Century monk out of "The Name of the Rose." His black hair is receding, which is why he now cuts it short. Judges and skaters, who remember his long, fluffy 'do from '88, are quick to comment on it--"Brian, what happened to your hair!"--as if his hair, like Samson's, would somehow affect his skating. He has also gained weight, which is why some judges have told him he looks fat. He \o7 is\f7 big, for a figure skater: 5-11, 165 pounds. He has the flaring, muscular thighs of a sprinter or a split end in football.
At competitions, when the skaters practice in groups together on the ice, he looks like a big, predatory bird surrounded by hummingbirds. Their skates seem barely to touch the ice, but Boitano plows forward, digging in his skates as he makes huge figure eights the length of the rink. He moves with his head down, shoulders slightly hunched. The other skaters stay stiffly upright, their eyes looking up toward the top row of seats, like actors playing to the back of the house. As Boitano builds up more and more speed in his figure eights, he begins to smile, luxuriating in the sheer physicality of skating fast.
Each of the skaters gets his own practice time on center ice, while the competition works out around him. One at a time, they run through their routines, beginning to end. When they miss a jump, hands touching the ice for balance, they glance into the stands, seeking out trainers, parents and agents: the entourage. Then they glide toward their coaches, seated at a long table with other coaches, close to the ice, for long words of advice and encouragement: "Excellent! Excellent!" says a coach, handing over an Evian and a Kleenex. "Just remember to keep your body straight."
But even when center ice is his, Boitano only skates small parts of his routine, 30 seconds here, 20 seconds there, one leap, and then he circles slowly around the rink, his head always down, contemplating what he has just done. There is no entourage, and on those rare occasions when he stops by his coach, they barely speak. Maybe a word or a nod, and Boitano is off again, skating in his own private world.