SHOULDERS BACK, HEAD ERECT, pre-middle-age paunch only slightly in evidence, Christopher Bowman stands poised at center ice. Then, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" fills the air, and he's off on a flirty moonwalk, mugging and preening as he glides across the rink. Nearby, a group of young girls shrieks and giggles with excitement.
Four years after he placed fourth at the Olympics in Albertville, France, Bowman the Showman hasn't lost the magic. But in his current incarnation—skating coach at a Garden City, Mich., rink—he has clearly scaled back its reach. "Life isn't about a medal in your living room," says the famously flamboyant two-time national figure skating champion, now 30 and living in Dearborn Heights, Mich., with his fiancée and fellow coach Annette Jasinkiewicz. "It's a journey. This is a new beginning for me."
That he needed one, badly, is beyond dispute. After a 20-year amateur career marked by erratic performances and rumors of drug use, Bowman—the only big-time skater with the slogan "Nobody's Perfect" tattooed on his left shoulder—spent a year with the Ice Capades, which he joined in 1992, and then hit bottom. While living in Franklin, Mass., where he was coaching part-time, he was arrested for possession of cocaine, which he admits he had been using for years. The 1994 incident, which resulted in a $500 fine, was like a slap in the face. "I realized all this B.S. was getting in the way of things I wanted," recalls Bowman, who says he hasn't used drugs since.
While those who know him applaud his cleaned-up act, many also bemoan the life of wasted potential they believe preceded it. "Christopher should have been world champion," says Frank Carroll, his longtime coach. "But he didn't have the drive or dedication."
What he did have—talent combined with showbiz flair—was apparent from childhood. The only child of an office-equipment repairman and a secretary, Bowman grew up in Van Nuys, Calif., and discovered skating at age 5, when he scampered onto a rink at a local mall and was hooked. "Skating was all I could talk about," he says. When a bystander commented on his skill one day, his mother persuaded Carroll, then coaching future Olympian Linda Fratianne, to look him over. "He had tremendous ability," Carroll says. "And he looked like a toy-store doll. The perfect little child."
While training with Carroll, Bowman acted in commercials and landed stints on Little House on the Prairie and Archie Bunker's Place before phasing out acting to sharpen his skating skills. He had begun making a name for himself—winning the national and world junior championships in 1983 and placing second in the 1987 national senior championships—when the rebellion began. At 21, Bowman grew his hair, pierced his ears and found drugs—"everything you can think of," he says.
At Carroll's urging, he did time at the Betty Ford Center in late 1987, but by the time of the 1988 Calgary Olympics he was back in self-destruct mode. Behind the scenes he was drinking and sneaking into women's dorms—all part of a conscious strategy, he now says, to distinguish himself from squeaky-clean competitors like his teammate Paul Wylie, whom he felt the skating establishment favored. "I didn't care whether it was in the sports section or the police report," he says. "As long as I was in the paper, I was somebody."
He managed to place seventh in Calgary, but Carroll was fed up. After the 1990 world championships, when Bowman flubbed a jump and improvised the rest of his program, the pair parted. "The best talent in the world, and his skating was going nowhere," Carroll says. Bowman, who timed his drug use so he never failed a pre-competition drug test, sees things differently. "I knew when the partying had to stop," he says, but "no matter what I did, in Frank's eyes it wasn't good enough."
A series of other coaches guided him to one more national championship in 1992 and to his fourth-place finish in Albertville, but his problems with cocaine were increasing. He was beaten during a 1991 drug deal in Toronto, and in 1993, while with the Ice Capades, he wound up hospitalized after a barroom brawl. "I was using quite a bit then," he admits.
Bowman credits Jasinkiewicz, 23, whom he met in 1995, with helping him continue the turnaround his 1994 drug arrest set in motion. "She's not caught up in the image—she's in love with me" he says. Confirms his fiancée: "He's a wonderful, warmhearted person." The couple, who are living with Jasinkiewicz's parents, spend off-ice hours cooking or playing video games, and Bowman drops in on Narcotics Anonymous meetings, he says, to "talk about things." Regret is not among them. "How can you say that someone who has accomplished what I have has squandered anything?" Bowman says. "I wish I'd made my mistakes sooner. Otherwise, I wouldn't change a thing."
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Garden City
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