ALBERTVILLE, France -- Christopher Bowman is anything but the hardest-working man in show business. He dislikes practice. Avoids it. Reviles it. "Work is exactly what it is: a four-letter word," he told a gathering of Olympic press the other day.
John Nicks knew he was walking into a headache when, in November, he agreed to become Bowman's third coach in the last two years. But Nicks also knew he was getting a skater with unmatched star quality among today's elite.
"He becomes a different young man when the TV cameras come on, when the arena is full of people," said Nicks, 51, whose three decades of students have included Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. "It can be exasperating, but I have to recognize that about him. It can be a very special thing."
It can indeed. That is why Bowman, the current American champion, is an intriguing character in the men's Olympic skating competition, which begins tonight with the original program.
Bowman, 24, is rated by most experts behind three-time world champion Kurt Browning of Canada and former American champion Todd Eldredge. But those two are skating with sore backs. It's clearly an opportunity for Bowman. The issue is whether he will take it.
"The last three months have been very smooth for us," Nicks said. "I've been surprised at his willingness to work and his self-discipline. I'm enjoying the relationship very much right now. Of course, we'll see what the next few days hold in terms of surprises."
That's the problem with Bowman: You never quite know what's going to happen. He was considered the sport's coming star when he won the U.S. championship in Baltimore in 1989, but since then he has been inconsistent and often a disappointment, such as when he finished fifth in the World Championships last year. His prior coaches complained about his poor work habits.
Admitting he is near the end of his career, he had been dismissed as an underachiever by many in the skating community. But then he rebounded to win the Eldredge-less U.S. championships in Orlando, Fla., last month, putting him back in the spotlight.
Suddenly, he is a hot topic of debate: Can skating's undependable show-stopper put it all together in the biggest show of all? Bowman admits that the backdrop has him excited.
"I'm an emotional skater and this is an emotional setting," he said. "We'll see, in the heat of the moment, what is the best Bowman medicine. I don't want any surprises for [Nicks]. But maybe after we get everything in [his original and long programs] you'll see some 'Bowman the Showman.' "
Nicks' task has been to preserve that prime-time spirit while improving Bowman's stamina and technique. The last three months of practice have been the toughest of Bowman's career. Bowman openly admits he doesn't like it.
"It puzzles me, why we have to do it," he said. "It's hard for me to understand. Why do you have to do so much [work] for figure skating? Like in boxing, say, those guys have to be in shape. But figure skating is not like heart surgery, you know, one slip and it's over. So I don't know."
Bowman's grumbling has not deterred Nicks, though.
"The kind of thing I will do," Nicks said, "is have him skate 15 laps around the rink if he doesn't hit a triple jump. Then five more laps if he doesn't hit it again. That kind of motivational thing seems to succeed with Christopher. He thinks it's tough. But he's responding."
The real show starts tonight, though, and the question is this: Which Bowman will show up?