Still Carrying A Torch

BRIAN BOITANO WILL NEVER FORGET how badly his gold-medal skate began at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. As he readied to step on the ice, a good-luck hug from a friend inexplicably started him bawling. Then during his warm-up some "jerk" it turned out to be his brother-started a "Boitano" chant, sending the Canadian crowd into a frenzy for their own Brian, world champion Brian Orser. But somehow with Boitano's first glide the "Battle of the Brians" receded, and the only battle going on was between two voices in his head. One kept saying, "You're going to blow it"; the other retorted, "Shut up! Concentrate!"

When he reached the critical triple-flip/triple-toe-loop jump combination, Boitano was rewarded with transcendence. "I went to vault off my toes and the ice just exploded under me," he recalls. "It felt like someone was lifting me up under the armpits and then they just set me down light as a feather." From that soaring moment, the rest remains a blur -- the triumphant finish, the crowd exploding from its seats, Boitano hiding in a bathroom stall while his rivals skated and, finally, his ascent to the highest podium. "It was exactly how I had always envisioned it, so I wasn't sure I wasn't dreaming," he says. "It wasn't until they played the national anthem -- much faster than I had imagined -- that I knew for sure it was all real."

For most Olympic athletes, one such dream-come-true suffices for a lifetime. But for Boitano, it has not been enough. At the age of 30, his hair receding and thinning, his body 15 pounds heavier, his right knee hinged on less than a full tendon, Boitano has embarked on a comeback that has brought him to Lillehammer, for one last shot at Olympic glory. "He wants to try because it's virtually impossible," says Linda Leaver, Boitano's coach since he started skating at the age of 8. "He always wants to do the impossible."

Until this year, it was impossible. Boitano had turned pro and lost his Olympic eligibility. But when the rules changed last year to allow pros to become "amateurs" again, Boitano leaped. Since then, he's been living the drudge life of the world-class athlete. He'd commute daily from his home in San Francisco to ice rinks in strip-mall suburbs. He'd stretch and jog, then skate intense 90-minute workouts. His afternoons were a hodgepodge of therapies -- from ultrasound to deep tissue massage to acupuncture to StairMaster -- to bolster his damaged knee. "He is skating through incredible pain," says Leaver.

Recently there has been an unfamiliar creakiness in Boitano's performances. And he has had to settle for second place in a succession of competitions this season most recently and most surprising of all to 21-year-old Scott Davis in the U.S championships. As a result, Boitano, who brings a refreshingly mature approach to a sport dominated by juveniles of all ages, has reassessed his prospects. "I'm not saying I don't want to win," he says. "But just to come back at 30 and demonstrate that I can compete means a lot to me."

Boitano may be bucking another trend. In the past, little counted more than a skater's reputation -- and a reputation like Boitano's was enough almost to guarantee a medal. Indeed Brian was expected to divvy up the '94 Olympic prizes with the two other big-name skaters, defending champion Viktor Petrenko from Ukraine and Canada's four-time world champion Kurt Browning. But skating judges finally appear to be scoring the performances, not the skater. Not only did Boitano lose to up-and-comer Davis, but Browning lost the Canadian title to leaper extraordinaire Elvis Stojko. (Petrenko barely staved off an upset in the European championships.)

Still, no one dismisses Boitano, a skater who has proven ability to skate his best under pressure. In 1992, NEWSWEEK arranged a multiple-exposure photo of a triple axel for its Olympic-preview issue. But the top American skater selected to make the jump couldn't hit a mark and land the jump in a pitch-black arena. A desperation call lured Boitano, who had already skated an exhibition that evening. In a post-midnight session, he executed the jump on his first try. "Brian is uncanny," says Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, who chose not to make an Olympic return. "He has the muscle memory to pull this Olympic thing off regardless of how he looked back in practice."

His coach, Leaver, has been working, too, talking to judges about what they like and don't-about Brian's latest programs. She learned they were unhappy with his free skate, which made too many concessions to age. As originally conceived, Boitano's 4 1/2-minute routine packed almost all the jumping at the start when he was fresh; then it relied on long stretches of artistry during which Boitano tried to emote the rugged, pioneer spirit of Aaron Copland's music. "When you're huffing and puffing out there, you're not really thinking about feeling the piece," he admits. "You're thinking about just doing your tricks and somehow getting to the end." After losing the national championship, Boitano made major revisions in his program. The new program is more demanding -- with fancier footwork and three triple jumps after the three-minute mark. Its rhythms are now more in sync with Copland's. "Big moves now come with the big music," says Leaver.

"I once told Brian he'd be able to compete as long as he had the heart for it," says Leaver. "But his body gave out long before his heart." Still, Brian believes that he has at least one more great skate in him. Why not in Lillehammer? Boitano's triple-flip/triple-toe-loop combination comes little more than one minute into his free-skating program. All he needs is for someone to lift him high and set him down light as a feather, one last time.