Birdseed for breakfast? Skater spins to own beat

February 18, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- She is Surya Bonaly.

Her picture adorns billboards. Her appearance on the ice sends spasms through an audience assembled to watch her practice.

She shows up for a news conference, and the photographers go into a frenzy.

She takes the oath on behalf of the athletes at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Her voice is high and breathless. It echoes on a crisp evening in the Alps. The crowd roars.

The figure skater smiles.

Tomorrow night, Bonaly will take a stage of ice at the Winter Olympics. Let others watch Americans Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and Japan's Midori Ito begin the chase for the ladies' singles gold medal in the original program.

France will salute its 18-year-old skating heroine.

Bonaly is a walking tabloid story. She eats birdseed for breakfast. She received her first haircut last year. Her mother is nicknamed "The Dragon Lady" by the French press.

"To be a star?" she said. "It is good. But I'm alone. Just me. Perhaps tomorrow, or the next day, it will be different."

Hers is a story in which figure skating is the last ingredient.

Born in Reunion, an island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, she was adopted by French parents. Turned from a tumbler to a skater, she is a jumble of contrasts. She is a black in a predominantly white sport. She trains on a macrobiotic diet, but has been known to sneak the occasional candy bar. She is a triple-jumping sensation and an artistic klutz.

And she is also one of the more controversial figures on ice. Some say she is a terrific performer, a woman capable of spins and jumps that elude the men. Others say she's simply awful.

"Surya cannot skate. All she can do is move from triple jump to triple jump," said Evy Scotvold, the coach of Kerrigan and Olympic men's silver medalist Paul Wylie.

But it doesn't matter. The French don't care. The judges in Europe don't care.

Bonaly is a two-time reigning European champion who has vaulted to the big time. Adopted as a 1-year-old by Suzanne and Georges Bonaly, she became a world novice tumbling champion before taking to the ice full time.

Her parents remain an integral part of her career. Georges can be seen at the rink, video camera in hand, taping the moves of all the top skaters. Suzanne, though, is perched next to the boards, exhorting her daughter to perform. This one-time

gymnastics coach fancies herself a skating expert.

"I am not crazy," Suzanne Bonaly said. "I live in the middle."

But she is a stage mother, Momma Rose with a French accent. She oversees every detail of her daughter's silver, space-age costumes. She is consulted on choreography. She even cut a few inches off her daughter's waist-length hair last year, just to show the judges and her European critics that it could be done.

"People think we are extreme," Suzanne Bonaly said. "So we cut her hair. Just a bit."

Style does count in skating. The Bonalys are under extraordinary stress at home and abroad. Although Debi Thomas of the United States became the first black athlete to win a Winter Olympics medal when she received the bronze in ladies' singles in 1988, the sport retains a white, European-American, upper-class image.

Bonaly, like Ito and Yamaguchi, breaks through barriers.

"It is like the yin and the yang," Suzanne Bonaly said. "It is important. It is not important. Surya is born black, and it is beautiful I adopt black, because people don't. The color isn't important. The heart is."

The man caught in the midst of this family web is Didier Gailhaguet. As the coach appointed by the French skating federation to oversee Bonaly's career, Gailhaguet frequently has clashed with Suzanne Bonaly.

"Surya has a lot of pressure from her mother," Gailhaguet said. "That does not help her. It has been a problem the last two years. The mother feels the pressure, and puts the pressure on the kid."

The whole skating world could see the pressure build and spill over at the Trophy Lalique event in Albertville in November. Bonaly skated horridly. With each triple that turned into a tumble, Gailhaguet stepped farther and farther away from the mother.

"Surya has potential," Gailhaguet said. "I always thought that her mother was a plus in practice. I don't think Surya would be here without her mother. But the problem is not the push. The #F problem is, now, her mother is in the way."

Off the ice, during an interview, it is Suzanne Bonaly who does most of the talking for her daughter.

"Surya is a Bonaly, and that is what makes her different," she said. "She can do a back flip. One at a time. It is beautiful. When she learned to walk, she learned to skate. She did all sports. She skied. She water skied. She tumbled. But she loved to skate."

There are other touches to this tale. Take the skater's diet.

Birdseed?

"We are ecologists," Suzanne Bonaly said. "It is the respect of the Earth."

Surya Bonaly maintains she can eat anything she wants, but prefers "to see the animals live in the field."

"Sometimes," she said. "I'll eat M&Ms. For the sponsors."

But Surya Bonaly doesn't skate for a candy company. She skates for France.

"It will be exciting," she said. "I want to get a medal. But it's so early in my career. I have time. I can wait."

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