ORLANDO, Fla. -- Christopher Bowman works best when he works alone.
The gossip and the rumors that envelop the bad boy of American figure skating fade the moment he steps on the ice. Give him a spotlight, dress him in black and then stand back and watch.
Yesterday, Bowman ended yet another tumultuous week in his career by winning the free-skate final and claiming his second men's title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
This was hardly the best of Bowman, but the show was good enough to send him to next month's Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
"I skated with every drop of my blood," he said. "I don't consider someone sweating down to 97 pounds conservative."
Joining Bowman on the U.S. Olympic team are Paul Wylie, a popular 27-year-old Harvard graduate who vaulted from fourth to second, despite a free-skate program marred by bobbles, and Todd Eldredge, the two-time reigning national champion who missed the competition because of an injury to his lower back.
The U.S. Figure Skating Association's international committee gave the final Olympic berth to Eldredge over third-place finisher Mark Mitchell.
But, as usual, Bowman held center stage.
Dressed in black pants, a matching black waistcoat and a fluffy white silk shirt, the 24-year-old from Los Angeles posed before every floor camera like the child actor he once had been, and ended the show by embracing himself and blowing a kiss to the crowd.
But this was soft-core skating. Bowman landed seven triple jumps, but didn't attempt the 3 1/2 -revolution Axel, which is a standard among top skaters. If he unloaded the same program at the Olympics, he probably would finish fourth . . . in the ladies competition.
"Bowman was dull, boring, simple and slow," said Dick Button, the ABC-TV commentator and two-time Olympic champion.
Told of Button's comments, Bowman rolled his eyes, and then whispered: "Oh, how dare Dick Button. I know where Dick lives. I can . . . but cannot believe that. Did Dick really say that?"
But Bowman has spent a career infuriating the skating establishment. This week alone, he was hounded by questions of a mysterious mugging in Toronto, three coaching changes in 16 months and rumors of drug use. The USFSA even issued a statement clearing Bowman of the drug allegations.
"I'm very happy and proud to be the men's champion of the United States," Bowman said. "But I wish Todd Eldredge were in the competition. I like to face those challenges."
Eldredge's absence created a challenge for the remaining competitors. Finish second in the free skate, worth 67 percent of the overall score, and you were guaranteed a trip to Albertville. Finish third, and you were the odd man out.
In the end, it came down to a split decision, with Wylie gaining five of the nine second-place votes from the judges.
Wylie, the stylist who was in fourth after Friday's original program, stepped out of two triple Axels in the free skate. But Mitchell, a 23-year-old technician from Hamden, Conn., missed a triple jump combination.
"I said to myself going into every single jump, 'This has to be it, this has to be it,' " Wylie said. "It was a difficult day for me. I got dressed after the performance because I didn't think I would be in the awards presentation."
Mitchell, who skated to theme music from "On The Waterfront," a movie about political and labor corruption, accepted the defeat with grace and a smile.
"I coulda been a contender," he said.
Mitchell, the only contender to land the triple Axel, is now the alternate to the Olympic team. A final decision about Eldredge's status must be made by Jan. 24, the date rosters must be submitted to Albertville organizers.
"I can sympathize with the way Mark Mitchell feels," Eldredge said. "It could have been a yes, and it could have been a no for me, too. I'm relieved for now. I'll be more relieved when the back is better."
For now, the United States must pin its men's Olympic medal hopes on a rebel dressed in black. Bowman and his coach, John Nicks, say they are ready for the Olympics.
"Every other male skater in the world needs to know Christopher Bowman is now coming to Albertville," Nicks said. "And Christopher is in the ballgame."