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Reflections on Bowman's life and career

Ellen Burka and others talk about the late champion

Christopher Bowman's exploits on and off the ice made him difficult to coach, but his friends and colleagues still remember him fondly.
Christopher Bowman's exploits on and off the ice made him difficult to coach, but his friends and colleagues still remember him fondly. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/11/2008) - After Christopher Bowman and Frank Carroll parted ways following Bowman's dismal performances at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, the skater headed to Toronto to train under 1976 Olympic bronze medalist Toller Cranston and Ellen Burka, who had previously coached Cranston and several other Canadian champions.

"That was the most colorful time of my career," Burka said. "I could write a book about it. We all knew he had a drug problem; he told me himself he had started doing drugs when he was 14. We tried to help him, but he was on a total path of destruction."

Saying she was "shocked, but not surprised," at the news, a saddened Burka kept fellow coaches at Toronto's Granite Club laughing all day long on Friday with her tales about training -- or, rather, trying to train -- the irrepressible Bowman.

"He was a fabulous skater; he could do incredible things," she said. "But he had days when it was impossible to train him. Still, under pressure, he could do things he would never do in practice. I asked him about that once; he told me, 'I suck the energy out of the audience and into my body, and I use it.' And that was true."

According to Burka, Bowman's most infamous behavior occurred at the 1991 World Championships in Munich, where he placed fifth.

"The night before the competition, he locked himself in his bedroom, and no one could get in," she recalled. "Finally, his mother, Joyce, got a security guard to open the room. He didn't even recognize her.

"At practice the next day, all he did was waltz jumps. Then, in the last five minutes, he skated up to me and Toller and said, 'I have a surprise for you,' and he went out and did three quads in a row. He never did that before or again, but that was typical Chris Bowman."

Finally, enough was enough. In the fall of 1991, Burka called Joyce Bowman and told her she and Cranston could no longer train her son.

"There were just too many strange adventures," Burka said. "He had dyed his hair bright orange-red, and that was the last straw. We couldn't control him.

"But I still think of him as a very, very nice person, kind, with a great sense of humor. Unfortunately he spiraled downward and couldn't stop himself."

Craig Heath looks back

For professional skater and choreographer Craig Heath, who trained alongside Bowman in the 1980's and competed with him at the U.S. Championships, what stood out most about the skater was his incredible charisma.

"One of the strongest Chris Bowman memories is how he always made friends so easily," Heath said from Hong Kong, where he is performing and teaching.

"He was always joking around with everyone at the rink, from janitors to managers. Everyone was drawn to him. You could not help but to like the guy. I know he drove his parents and Frank crazy but that is because he was so incredibly talented and they wanted him to be his best. He just wanted to play.

"When we were training in Burbank at Pickwick Ice Arena, he would not really like to practice so he would skate around the rink and make people laugh. This would go on all the time. Frank would get really mad and then make him do his program run-through. Chris would do it perfectly almost every time. I don't know how he would do that."

Occasionally, Bowman would encourage the far more diligent Heath to follow his example.

"I was the hardworking 'good' boy; Chris was the rebel," Heath said. "I needed a little more rebel so his influence was perfect. We would always compete to see who had the best figures. One day Chris came over to me and was trying to convince me that his figure was better, but he was really trying to get me to bend down and check out the tracings. I should have known better. As soon as I bent forward, he pulled my pants down around my ankles and the entire rink was laughing. All I could do was stand there and laugh too."

Bowman anecdote from Greenwich, Conn.

In 1989, Bowman, together with 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill, visited Hamill's namesake rink in her hometown of Greenwich, Conn., to perform in a benefit show.

"He was charming, and he was just famous for his caustic remarks. He was hilarious," recalled Nancy Madden Leamy, a national coach and director of the facility's skating school.

"At that time, the rink really needed a coat of paint. It was kind of a local embarrassment; everyone said for the amount of money the town had, the rink really should have been in better shape.

"Well, Chris took one look at the place and said, 'What is this, a third-world country?' And the manager was just furious. But Chris was the national champion back then, and his words carried more weight than the words of the people who worked here, and the place was painted."

Bowman's last employer

Bowman's last employer, Ellen Slusarchuk of Valley Ice Center in Panaroma City, Calif., said when Bowman approached her for a job, she was the only one willing to take a chance on the two-time U.S. champion.

"I've known him since he was eight years old, and a lot of the coaches here have known him since the '80s," Slusarchuk said. "Beyond all of his problems, which we were all aware of, he was just a genuinely sweet guy. When he asked me for a job, he said he was out of skating, and was managing a storage unit place in Michigan.

"He joined us in March, and he was a good technical coach, very patient, really loved working with the little kids. He didn't work with any of our advanced skaters. Often he would give his time free to people who couldn't afford a lot of lessons."

Unfortunately, Slusarchuk said, they were forced to part ways in the beginning of December due to Bowman's erratic attendance.

"In the end, he was down to teaching just one little girl, a 7 year-old who really loved him. I feel very sorry for her; I don't know how his death is going to be explained.

"There's a lot of bad stuff about him out there, but Christopher was a good person. He had a good heart, and that's what everybody needs to remember."

Reflections from around the skating world

John Nicks, former coach: "Christopher Bowman was one of the most talented and entertaining skaters that I ever worked with."

Frank Carroll, former coach: "He was truly a unique, wonderful, witty and intelligent human being. He was the most talented skater that I ever taught."

U.S. Figure Skating President Ron Hershberger: "U.S. Figure Skating was extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Christopher Bowman. He was an exceptionally talented skater, and his friends throughout the skating community will always remember the special gifts he shared with us. Our thoughts are with Christopher's family during this difficult time, as they deal with this tragic loss."

U.S. Figure Skating senior director of athlete high performance Mitch Moyer: "'Bowman the Showman' says it all. When I think of Christopher, I smile. I think of all the Christopher Bowman stories and performances. He loved to be on stage both on and off the ice ... and then I frown. It is sad that he struggled with balancing his life and that he passed away so young. Christopher touched so many lives and put smiles on all our faces."

1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano to the Chicago Tribune: "If I had to pick the three most talented skaters of all time, I would pick Christopher as one. He had natural charisma, natural athleticism. He could turn on a crowd in a matter of seconds, and he always seemed so relaxed about it."

1993 U.S. champion Nancy Kerrigan: "Christopher was one of the most entertaining skaters I have ever seen. He understood better than most how to capture the crowd. I know my parents were huge fans of his because they loved how he could communicate with the audience. I will never forget spending time with Christopher at the 1992 Olympics. We had a lot of fun. He will be missed."

2007 U.S. champion Evan Lysacek: "He was definitely an icon in our sport, and he'll be missed, and our thoughts are obviously with his family."