Diamond in the Rough
03/06/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
TWO WEEKS AGO A DETROIT-AREA teenager slipped into an Oakland County court to seek the dismissal of a felony charge for which she was on probation. Normally such judicial goings-on pass unnoticed. This teen, however, had just won the women's U.S. Figure Skating Championship.
On Feb. 11, Nicole Bobek, the 17-year-old beauty from Troy, Mich., stunned the skating world with her win in Providence over highly favored Michelle Kwan, 14. Then, just as suddenly, she served notice once again that skating champions may be less exquisitely graceful off-ice than on.
Last Nov. 2, Bobek unlawfully entered the home of a fellow skater in Bloomfield Township using an electronic security code the friend had given her. Bobek claims she went inside to wait for the friend, but the friend's father, Su Myong Yi, said he arrived to find her with a large sum of money taken from a closet. Bobek later entered a conditional guilty plea to a charge of home invasion. She was sentenced to two years' probation as a first-time offender under a special law that would make the charges confidential and allow them to be suppressed upon the successful completion of her probation. But on Feb. 16 circuit court Judge David Breck dismissed the case partly because the intended confidentiality had been breached as details became public.
Whatever the legal consequences, her brush with the law speaks volumes about Nicole's bumpy journey to the top. In the past eight years she has had eight coaches and at least as many home addresses. And she has acquired a reputation as a hard-partying night owl who seemed destined to throw away her potential.
According to some of Bobek's friends and coaches, many of her foibles are merely sparks thrown off by the inevitable friction between a spirited personality and a demanding, straitlaced sport. Others, though, see them as a reaction to the oppressive—some say abusive—control exercised by Nicole's mother, Jana, and Jana's longtime friend Joyce Barron who has lived with them since Nicole was born and whom the skater long believed was her aunt.
While details about Nicole's early life are murky—she never knew her father and only recently learned that her parents were never married—one thing remains clear: she has talent. At age 3, she was enrolled in her first ice-skating class in Chicago. "I'd put on music and interpret for hours," recalls Nicole. Says Jana, a Czechoslovakian native who fled to the U.S. in 1968: "The ice was her sandbox."
Nicole's first coach, Debbie Stoery, was amazed by her energy. "She was gifted," says Stoery. "I loved her to pieces. She was kind and loving and outgoing." While in Chicago, Jana (pronounced Yana) and Joyce earned a living managing ice-cream trucks in Chicago's Lincoln Park during the summer.
When they lost their city contract because of a change in mayoral administrations, they moved with Nicole to Los Angeles in 1987—where she went through two coaches in three years—and then to Colorado Springs. It was there that difficulties began to surface between Nicole and her mother and Joyce Barron.
By this time, some people in skating regarded Bobek as a discipline problem. Coach Kathy Casey in Colorado once said of Nicole, "She doesn't know what work is." She wasn't winning any popularity contests among her fellow skaters, either. "Nobody ever wanted to room with her because she's out late and has temper tantrums," says one skater.
Some friends lay the blame for Nicole's behavior on Jana and Joyce. In 1993, Nicole complained of mistreatment to at least three people. One of them was Bobek sponsor Linda Loucks of Lake Forest, Ill., wife of Baxter International president Vernon Loucks, who filed a complaint on Nicole's behalf with the El Paso (Colo.) County social-services department in June 1993. In October, Kerry Hyde, the daughter of a woman who Tutored Bobek in Colorado Springs, made a similar complaint.
Hyde claims that Jana and Joyce deprived the skater of privacy, routinely listening in when Bobek phoned her. She also claims Joyce browbeat Nicole, calling her "idiot, stupid, fat constantly." One day in the fall of '93, says Hyde, Bobek slipped a close family friend a note begging for help. "Life is getting harder," the note read. "Some days I just want to die. I need your help to get me out or else there is no need for me living."
A few days later, Nicole, then 16, ran away, seeking refuge across town with Joyce Barron's daughter Rochelle Streeter, who had lived with her mother and the Bobeks from 1977 to '82. During the two days Nicole stayed with her, Rochelle told Nicole that their mothers were not sisters—a revelation that reportedly shook Nicole profoundly. "The only thing I can say is, she hasn't had an easy life," says Streeter, now 30 and a schoolteacher in Alaska.
Streeter filed a third complaint. Yet, because of insubstantial evidence, none of them were pursued. For her part, Bobek now says that Loucks, Hyde and Streeter manipulated her into making allegations against her mother and Barron because they wanted to control her. "I would just like to say this," says Nicole. "My mother has never hit me."
Says Jana: "I get a lot of criticism. I hear that either I'm neglecting or overpowering. But every child is an individual, and I go by my instincts and try to do my best as a parent."
In April 1994, Nicole moved with Jana and Joyce to Massachusetts' Cape Cod to train with Evy and Mary Scotvold, Nancy Kerrigan's coaches. The arrangement was short-lived. "They were looking for a fatherly relationship for her," says Evy Scotvold. "But I have no interest in being the father figure for any of my skaters." What relationship they had broke off when Jana insisted on sending Nicole to the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July. Evy, who felt Nicole was overweight and out of shape, refused to go with her. Jana, signing on coach Richard Callaghan, sent her anyway. Nicole came in an undistinguished seventh.
It is with Callaghan, though, that Bobek has gained the sophistication and style that carried her to victory in Providence after she ditched her vampy routines to can-can accompaniments in favor of her signature spirals and the theme from Dr. Zhivago. "It just took me away," says Nicole of the movie's theme of undying love. "Just everything about it."
Fellow skaters were impressed with her performance. "This time there was a fight in her I'd never seen before," says one competitor.
For all of her new celebrity, Bobek is focused on her sport as never before as she prepares for the world championships in Birmingham, England, next week. "There never was a time when I was confused at what I was doing," says Bobek. "I always knew I wanted to skate, and that's it."
JONIH. BLACKMAN and CLARE MEAD ROSEN in Detroit, VICKIE BANE in Denver, LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles and STEPHEN SAWICKI in Providence