Bowman changes style, not essence

October 21, 1990|By Phil Hersh | Phil Hersh,Chicago Tribune

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It figured that when Christopher Bowman made the TV sports highlights last week, it would not be for a triple Axel or a split jump or a scratch spin or anything

that demonstrated his ability as a figure skater.

The Bowman moves that were selected as CNN's "Play of the Day" were, instead, more evidence of his ability as a showman.

Doing an exhibition at Notre Dame to promote NutraSweet Ice Skating Month, Bowman played a skit of mistaken identities with Irish football coach Lou Holtz. The skater mimicked Holtz's sideline gestures so perfectly that local and national sports shows ate up the videotape.

That side of Bowman, the irrepressible ham, has always received high marks from audiences, the judges whom he most wants to please. The other side, the skater who wants to be taken seriously in world competition, is often judged more harshly.

"I've asked Christopher why he competes," said Ellen Burka, one of Bowman's new coaches. "He's absolutely a performer, the best performer on earth. I ask him, 'Why don't you just become a show skater? Every show is waiting for you?'"

When Bowman tries to answer that question, his logic gets a little convoluted. He doesn't like the no-nonsense side of competition, the part that says you are defined by the color of a medal instead of the length of an ovation. Yet Bowman pushes onward toward the 1992 Olympics with an apparent dedication that led him to leave his coach of 17 years, Frank Carroll, late last summer.

That break came after a year in which Bowman failed to defend his national championship because of a bad back and dropped from second to third in the World Championships. At the worlds, Carroll and Bowman feuded publicly when the skater did a total improvisation instead of his planned long program. The coach had long lamented Bowman's erratic training habits.

The relationship didn't improve much over the summer. When an obviously out-of-shape Bowman staggered to a sixth-place finish the Goodwill Games, he knew it was time for a change.

"I've never been able to explain it to Frank," Bowman said. "He is like a third parent to me. I've spent more time with him than I have with my father.

"But emotional things started getting in the way. It's like having to work for your father. You love your father to death, but the business isn't going well, and tension builds up on the home front. One of you has to pull back."

So Bowman moved from Los Angeles to Toronto, where he lives with former Canadian skating star Toller Cranston. He is working with both Cranston and Burka, a taskmaster who coached Cranston to the 1976 Olympic bronze.

"For several years, Toller and I have been talking about what I needed," Bowman said. "He thought I should tone down more, regain my composure on the ice, start to have a more classic, refined feel. My music is going to be simpler no gimmicky or ethnic stuff."

The "new" Bowman will be unveiled this weekend at Skate America in Buffalo, where his competition includes all of the world's top male skaters except world champion Kurt Browning of Canada. Bowman will skate his short program to Chopin, his long program to Lalo, Khatchaturian and Shostakovich. He will wear dark costumes. No more Indian war whoops, suspenders or rhinestones.

"Mind you," Burka said, "this might not work."

Getting Bowman to appear serious should not be that hard. He was a child actor who says "85 to 90 percent of what I do on the ice is theatrical, calculated to get audiences excited."

Getting Bowman to be serious, especially about his training, is another matter. Three-a-day practices, including one at 10 p.m., have helped. So has Burka's insistence on making Bowman do repeated run-throughs of his programs. That is designed to improve his physical conditioning.

"Last year, I was training at about 20 percent of my capacity," Bowman said. "Ellen has improved that by 60 percent."

Said Burka: "His work habits have gotten better and better. He works his own way, and he thinks he is working very hard right now. I can't change a 23-year-old established man."

Exactly what needs to be changed depends upon perspective. To some bluehairs in official positions at the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Bowman needs reforming because he pursues the Olympic gold with less than monomaniacal devotion.

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