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Jun 18, 2012

Hans Brinker from Hell

Personally, my general impressions of 1980s-era singles skating is similar to my opinion of other 1980s peculiarities like big Aqua Net hair, over-sized shoulder pads and the man mullet: ironic amusement at best and utter horror at such a collective lack of taste at worst. Was it all those bizarrely incoherent music cuts? Or was it Katarina Witt and her Muppets program? Whatever it was, at some time during the formative years of my experiences with figure skating, much of 1980s skating struck me as a hopelessly dated even though earlier relics like Toller Cranston seemed fresh as paint.

One exception to my general aversion to the 1980s, however, is the skating of Christopher Bowman. 'Bowman the Showman' may now be best known as figure skating's equivalent of Requiem for a Dream (i.e. an inadvertent PSA warning against the dangers of drug abuse), but there's something fresh and modern about the irrepressible way he moved on the ice and projected to the audience. For Mr. Bowman, the charisma and talent level was as insane as the constant fog of drama surrounding him.

As a former child actor from Hollywood, California, Christopher Bowman cultivated a sort of bad boy/rock star image from an early age, making him a fluff maker's dream. Indeed, there seems to have been a good deal of fluff pieces that lovingly detailed Mr. Bowman's acting career and adventures frolicking in Californian locales, all interspersed with close-up shots of his face and clips of him with various women (e.g. see the fluff piece before his 1988 Olympics SP below). What nobody directly mentioned on television, however, was the other side of the 'bad boy' personality: the excessive partying, drugs and whores. Instead, fluff pieces and commentators constantly made vague allusions to Mr. Bowman's "never-ending free spirit," "lack of discipline," "spotty work ethic" and "soap opera" life.

Behind the drama, however, was a very talented skater. When properly trained and not too high on coke, Mr. Bowman had some gorgeous Frank Carroll technique that was to die for. As proof of his talent, Mr. Bowman even makes Jose Carreras howling MARIUHHHHHHHH over and over again in crappy 80s audio quality seem palatable. The way he holds out the ina bauer is particularly divine.

Even though Mr. Bowman was in rehab shortly before the 1988 Olympics, this short program from Calgary was probably Mr. Bowman's best competitive performance ever. The jumps were high and clean, the flow was great, there was a freedom to everything and the performance level was dialed up to 12. If only the rehab worked longer....

The chutzpah is irresistible.

This long program from 1990 Worlds is notable for how Mr. Bowman started ad libbing the choreography and jumps partway through the program....but the judges and crowds ate it up anyway even if Frank Carroll most definitely did not. It was a classic Bowman moment: despite being under-trained, in a tiff with his coach all week and possibly on some illicit substance or another, Mr. Bowman nonetheless managed to somehow land some jumps and charm his way onto the podium against all odds.

Watching the interactions between Mr. Carroll and Mr. Bowman in this video is endlessly fascinating, but in retrospect, also quite sad as this particular competition proved to be the breaking point in their seventeen-year relationship. It was either Carroll or the cocaine, but the cocaine most unfortunately won out.

After splitting with Frank Carroll, Mr. Bowman came under the tutelage of Toller Cranston. On paper, the combination of Toller Cranston and Mr. Bowman seemed solid. Both had that dramatic flair and a real understanding of how to match body movement to music, but the partnership was doomed from the beginning for obvious reasons. Mr. Cranston may have compared every day of their coach-student relationship to a car crash, but from later reports of the situation and how crazy it eventually drove Mr. Cranston, their relationship was much, much worse. It was more like two jumbo jets colliding with each other at full speed mid-air, but this excellent Rachmaninoff short program from 1991 Worlds showed what could have been for the Cranston-Bowman partnership.


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