Boitano can't fool the new generation LILLEHAMMER '94

February 20, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

HAMAR, Norway -- "It's not a story about age, it's a story about an injury," Brian Boitano was saying last night, putting his spin on his sixth-place finish in the Olympic skating competition.

It was a story about both, however. About an injury, yes. But also very much about age.

There was just no getting around it on a night when the gold medalist was 20, the silver medalist was 21 and the bronze medalist was 22, and Boitano, 30, wound up peering through a curtain to watch them get their medals.

"Brian and I wanted to come here and win medals, and we thought we would," said fellow old-timer Kurt Browning, a four-time world champion at age 27, "but there's a new, young style out there."

Realizing what he was saying, Browning stopped and smiled. "That's how people used to talk about me," he said. He was basically conceding to age on a night when he finished fifth.

Boitano would have no part of such talk. "I don't think we've been shoved aside at all," he said.

But is he fooling himself?

He insists that he isn't, that his chronically sore right knee was the villain that shot holes in his comeback. It led to groin and back injuries that he constantly fights.

"It's a serious knee injury," he said. "I should have had surgery."

He was standing in an alleyway just off the ice, sweat pouring down his face, his long program just completed. He held a bottle of mineral water in his hand, refused to count himself out for Nagano in '98 and kept coming back around to his knee.

"The comeback was a lot harder than I thought it would be, and the hardest part was people not knowing the whole story, that just to get hereI overcame a serious injury," he said. "No one saw the day-to-day grind of working with that injury."

He was the best skater in the world from 1988 to 1993, his mastery obvious even to an untrained eye. He was the varsity, the rest of the world the JV. He would have wired the field in Albertville. But by the time he skated here, something was wrong. He wasn't the same. Not as sure. Not as consistent.

In his original program Thursday night and his long program last night, he missed jumps that he made in his sleep two years ago. (Ironically, last night he finally hit the triple axel he'd been missing all year.) Nor could he handle the stress of skating first Thursday night, when spectators were still noisily filing in and the atmosphere was zilch.

He was just much more fragile. The question is why. Was it his injured knee and its ripple-effect on the rest of him, or was it just the evolutionary spin of his sport suddenly leaving him behind?

Trick question. It was both.

His knee is a problem, no doubt about it. But it's also a problem to suddenly feel the chill of vulnerability as a group of fearless, young kids come along and win your titles.

Boitano had insisted all along that it didn't matter what happened, that he came back just to enjoy competing. To his credit, he stuck with his story to the end. He was OK last night. He can take defeat. "I don't care about the results," he said.

But you know he did care. You know he is as surprised and disappointed as anyone at how it turned out. You know he probably wouldn't even have attempted a comeback had he known it would turn into this.

Before he lost to Scott Davis in the national championships in January, then felt compelled to overhaul his long program for the Olympics, he probably figured he would at least win a medal, maybe a gold. Everyone else did. But after nationals -- clang -- he was suddenly just another comebacker finding things a lot harder than they used to be.

It is clear now, in hindsight, that he misjudged the tallness of the task, failing to recognize what it would take for him to get back to the top in a skating world full of jumpers, especially while fighting an injury. And then it was too late to stop once he realized what was up.

In the end, the self-professed perfectionist was stuck with the consolation prize: satisfying himself if not the judges. Boitano was excited about finally hitting the troublesome triple axel near the end of his program, after slipping twice early.

"I was very proud of myself," he said, "for sucking it up and doing it. There were some rough things in the beginning of that program.

It would have been easy for me to say, 'Well, just go ahead and do a double.' But I hit it. It meant I was a fighter."

He said he would wait six months to see how he felt before he began deciding about '98. But he has not ruled it out, even though he would be 34, ancient for a skater.

He is a gentleman, so let's wish him nothing but the best. But either he knows something we don't, or he is fooling himself.

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