“You have to be very tough, very competitive. You have to be a real fighter, a real scrapper, a real go-getter. Basically, you need that spotlight, you need that attention…There are thousands of Christopher Bowmans out there, they all look the same. So you have to break out of the mold, become individualized, become someone else…and spark that interest in the mass general public that makes you popular, that brings you to a higher plateau.”
-Christopher Bowman, 1989
On Friday morning, while getting ready to head out to the coffee shop to do some writing, I had 1010 WINS on in the background, the local traffic, news, and weather AM station that pretty much reports the same stuff over and over every 10 minutes. As I was packing up my laptop, the announcer reported that a former figure skating champion had died of a possible overdose…Christopher The Showman Bowman.
I stopped, sat down on my couch, and waited 10 minutes to hear him say the exact same thing again. I was both shocked and not shocked at the same time. And mainly, saddened.
I didn’t really know Christopher Bowman, but he was at the top of his game in the same years I competed at Nationals. So I knew him only in the way you feel like you knew the Seniors in your high school when you were a Sophomore: you observed them both from afar and from close proximity and after a while, you felt as if you were somehow acquainted, not in a stalker way, but in a same-place-at-the-same-time kind of way. Skating is a small world, and, of course, in those years, Bowman didn’t exactly hide under a rock.
I’m sure lots of people have meaningful anecdotes to recount about Christopher Bowman, but here are the two I’ve been replaying in my mind in the last few days.
In 1983, after he won Junior Men at Nationals and Junior Worlds, he was the guest skater at our club’s annual ice show. The Figure Skating Club of Madison always pulled out all the stops for these productions – spotlights, sets, elaborate costumes, a huge curtain along one end that created an exciting zone called “backstage”…and guest skaters. My brother and I were relatively new to skating, bumbling along at the Novice level and clueless enough to not even know who Christopher Bowman was. But he breezed into our little Midwestern rink with all kinds of California star power. He was 16 years old at the time. He had a tan (well, relative to us), a gold chain, and very slick hair. I was only 11, but I noticed the teenage girls in our club were giggling more than usual and whispering to each other with animation whenever he came out of his locker room. I’m not sure if he actually winked at them before he took his guards off on his way out onto the ice or if this is something my memory has added, but it’s certainly something he would have done.
Anyway, what I’m getting at happened during the show’s grand finale on the last night. All the girls in the club, including me, were performing in a Precision-style, or Synchro-style group number, which culminated in what can only be described as a sort of add-on pinwheel, where you’d line up in opposite corners, and, when it was your turn, gun it for the middle, trying to latch onto the girls who were already marching in a revolving line. The skaters at the end, usually the shortest girls, had the biggest challenge, since the line was by then spinning pretty fast.
Once we’d all successfully hooked on and were holding on for our dear lives, we had a surprise coming our way: the big curtain parted and my brother and Christopher Bowman started aiming for us. We were all supposed to be turning our heads toward the middle of the wheel, but we instead looked to the outside to see what these boy interlopers were going to do. My brother was grinning but careful to catch onto the last girl, probably really concentrating on not falling. On the other end, Christopher Bowman was bent over like some kind of vaudeville speedskater, pretending like he couldn’t catch up. The audience and us skaters were all in hysterics. By the time the music stopped, he finally caught up to the lucky girl on the end. He looped one arm around her waist and with the other hand, he did one of those wiping-of-the-brow “Phew!” hand gestures. He waved at the audience while we all bowed, and I remember thinking that this Christopher Bowman guy sure was a lot of fun.
Later, at the 1989 Nationals in Baltimore, my brother and I got off the shuttle bus at an outlying practice rink and discovered that the last group of Championship Men were finishing up their practices right before us. Though it was cold, we did our off ice warm-up in the rink instead of the lobby in order to more easily see them. Christopher Bowman was working on his Triple Axel. We watched, stretching our quads and calf muscles, as he popped not two or three attempts but what seemed like at least 15 of them until Frank Carroll must have told him (probably with exasperation) to just call it quits.
The next day, we watched from the stands, rapt, as he popped a few more of these on his five minute warm-up. Then, of course, in the program, he not only landed the Triple Axel, but nailed it perfectly and the crowd, as it tended to do for him, went berserk. (This is my memory of the event, anyway…please correct me if I’m wrong.) I clapped and hooted with the rest of the audience, impressed, to say the least, and marveling at his ability to perform under pressure. At that competition, he would win the first of his two National titles, something you might not have thought possible, based on his practice less than 24 hours before. It did seem as if Bowman was spurned on by the audience, as if he performed better with it than without it.
Watching Bowman compete was always exciting, and not just because he had so much charisma. He had a reputation for not training very much, so as skaters, I think a lot of us watched to see if his methodology (or lack thereof) was ever going to catch up with him, not in a spiteful way, but maybe to justify our own secret (or in my own case, not-so-secret) desires to slack off. Of course, Bowman had a surplus of talent, so he could “pull it off” at the last minute with a sure-footedness that the rest of us could only dream of.
In the last few days, I’ve been re-watching videos of his performances on youtube, both in competition and exhibition, some of which I was lucky to originally see live and some of which I saw on television. I recommend that you sample some of these postings if you haven’t already. What you will see is extreme technical competence, true entertainment, and an undeniable spark, the magnitude of which is impossible to learn and impossible to teach.
In the Up-Close-And-Personal type pieces, you’ll see him shirtless while demonstrating martial arts, reclining on the beach in swim trunks and skates, and playing paint ball before most of us even knew what that was. You’ll see him, full of bravado and so pleased with himself, in the Kiss and Cry with the horrified Frank Carroll after he’s improvised his program at Worlds. In the show numbers, you’ll see him gyrating his hips, wearing a sports jersey from whatever town he’s performing in, and dancing with some unsuspecting yet overjoyed woman he’s picked from the audience. (Other guys try this shameless stunt during show programs, but most look like idiots and few seem to be genuinely having so much fun.) It certainly appeared that Christopher Bowman was handling the pressures of elite figure skating just fine.
In this footage, you’ll hear Scott Hamilton squeal with admiration, “Nobody works the crowd like Christopher Bowman!” And you’ll hear Dick Button’s backhanded lament that, “he has an enormous amount of talent. If he’d ever get finished playing around with this sport and not being quite as serious as he could be, then I think he’d be sensational.” When Button said this during the 1988 Olympics broadcast, the competition in which Bowman achieved 7th place on the heels of a National Bronze medal, it could be argued that what he’d already achieved was, in fact, sensational. (Going to the Olympics at all seemed pretty sensational, from where I sat.) Maybe Bowman never did fully take Button’s unsolicited advice and “buckle down” but he did go on to amass an impressive collection of medals.
Probably there are a lot of lessons to be learned from what has turned out to be a tragic story, more details of which will probably be revealed over the next few weeks and years, but I think it’s important to mainly remember the wink and the chuckle Christopher Bowman brought to figure skating, how he didn’t take himself or the skating world too seriously. In one interview, Bowman says, “I don’t see how anyone can do anything and be successful at it without enjoying doing it.” He adds, almost-defensively, since he was always being criticized for his lack of focus, “I feel that there are a lot of wonderful experiences to grasp and I try to grasp as many as I can.”
Ours is a regimented sport, filled with tension, and the stakes seem to just keep getting higher. One hopes that the athletes coming up today can carry on some of his lightheartedness amid all the new rules and regulations and the ever-increasing scrutiny of the media. I hope they can have enough perspective to occasionally laugh themselves. (I hope all of us can.) After all, to use Bowman’s own words, “Skating is a performance sport.” The world doesn’t tune in to watch a bunch of stiff machines and it’s kind of a drag to be one, anyway.
In a particularly serious moment, Bowman looks to his interviewer and makes a statement that, in hindsight, is nothing short of heartbreaking. He admits, “I’m doing the very best I can. I’m only human.” In fact, it’s been reported in several places that Bowman had a tattoo on his shoulder that said, “Nobody’s Perfect.” I don’t know when or exactly why he had this etched into his skin, whether it was an apology or some kind of battle cry. Whatever the case, though, he was right.
If nothing else, watch the exhibition footage from 1989 Nationals (link below). You’ll see him perform a slow number to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” followed by his iconic, hammy, Woolly Bully program. At the end, Bowman falls face-down on the ice, as if dead from exhaustion. He playfully raises his head, moves his hand in a comedic “more more” fashion and, as if following orders, the crowd claps even louder. Then he puts his head back down, playing dead again.
To watch Christopher Bowman in his prime, click: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuCDKDxISUM
Thank you for reading.