R.I.P. Christopher Bowman

by sawamix

Last winter I did a few posts about my former obsession and still guilty pleasure, televised figure skating. This week, the siren song of high-definition television led me to sit through treacle like a rebroadcast on one of the VOOM channels of not just an entire hour of skating to the music of Seal, but two hours of Kristi Yamaguchi Friends and Family with music by some preposterously cute multiracial kid I never heard of from High School Musical whose name I’ve forgotten, and three surprisingly and refreshingly zaftig divas called the Cheetah Girls who seem to be a similarly big hit among the tyke set.

Aside from the miracle of the now-44-year-old Brian Boitano still being able to do all those huge triple jumps, the other jaw-dropper was watching all these skaters I used to watch during my most obsessive period who not only haven’t aged a day in fifteen years, but some of whom now look almost younger than their own kids. 36-year-old Ekaterina Gordeeva not only hasn’t aged a day since 1994, despite witnessing a husband drop dead right on the ice, but daughter Daria, now a leggy fifteen-year-old who’s the spitting image of her father only with better teeth, is a damn fine skater in her own right.

Long missing from these tours of veterans from the heyday of televised figure skating; the days of the Battles of the Brians and the Carmens in the 1988 Olympics, and the overexposure the “sport” received in the aftermath of the infamous Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding knee whacking incident has been Christopher Bowman. As Dick Button noted before this short program at the 1988 Olympics (perhaps the high point of Bowman’s career), “If he ever gets around to devoting himself full-time to it, he could be an astounding skater”:

Americans have always been ambivalent about male figure skaters. In a country where hockey means that a kid who loves to skate is more likely to pick up a sport that involves hitting a puck (and other players) with a stick than to put on a spangled costume and take ballet lessons, Bowman was a rarity. In 1988, the sexual ambiguity of Brian Boitano and Canadian rival Brian Orser (who has since been unwillingly outed) was offset by the ferocious heterosexuality of Christopher Bowman. In hoping to remove the impression of figure skating as a “gay sport”, American figure skating circles put its hopes in the cute kid from Hollywood with the “million dollar feet and the ten-cent head” who had already been branded as “Hans Brinker from Hell” by skating pundits, as Boitano’s successor. But with Christopher Bowman, as with so many other athletes who have risen through the ranks of their sports loaded with potential but unable to overcome their personal demons, the “ten cent head” won out. As you can see from the commentary in this video of Bowman’s long program at 1988 Skate America, Bowman was painfully aware of the expectations the sport was placing on him:

This program may look easy by today’s standards, but the triple axel was a huge deal in 1988. Note also the reference to Bowman saying he started skating at age five because he was an “overactive child”. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1988, the prevailing wisdom about what we know now as ADHD extended solely to putting skates on the kid. With the perspective we have today, it’s pretty clear that Bowman’s problem extended far beyond a simple overabundance of energy, because not even competitive figure skating tould tame the scattered mind that inhabited the skater’s body.

After a disappointing 4th place finish at the 1992 Olympics and a seven-year professional career, Bowman became a coach in Los Angeles, appeared as a commentator on a few skating broadcasts, married and had a daughter. In the rare occasions when you’d read about him, you’d gasp at the bloated figure teaching kids to skate. Then you’d recognize Christopher Bowman behind all the flesh, and for a while it seemed as if he’d finally gotten his act together.

In recent years, Bowman seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Even his own official web site seems to have been abandoned years ago. He had become one of those “Whatever happened to….?” footnotes until he was found dead in a cheap motel room in Los Angeles shortly after noon yesterday:

“He just passed away in his sleep,” Bowman’s mother, Joyce, told the Detroit Free Press, which first reported details of his death, according to The Associated Press. “His friend told me that he was fine. He just went to bed and didn’t wake up.”

The cause of death was under investigation, said Lt. Joe Bale, adding that a full examination should take place this weekend. However, signs pointed to a “possible overdose,” Bale said.

Even if it turns out Bowman’s death wasn’t caused by an overdose, it’s clear that too many years of hard living and too much cocaine use had taken a toll. The irony is that despite his best efforts to live fast, die young, and make a good-looking corpse, he hung on too long to achieve the last two, and not long enough to get his head together. One wonders if he was ever evaluated for adult ADHD, and what would have happened if he had.

There are some quotes on Bowman’s web site that seem to encapsulate Christopher Bowman in a nutshell:

“Either lead this sport, follow this sport, or get out of the way.”

“It’s not what you can afford to have but what you can afford to lose.”

“The skater whose effort is going nowhere, generally gets there.”

“Be nice to other skaters on the way up, for you may see them on the way down.”

“Beware of the skater who has nothing to lose.”

As for me, I’d rather remember Christopher Bowman this way:

(Updated 1/15/08 in response to a comment to enclose “ten cent head” in quotation marks. The expression is a play on a line from Bull Durham and is in no way intended to make light of mental illness. Stories about Bowman’s death have since been updated to reveal that Bowman had sought treatment for bipolar disorder shortly before his death. Thanks to commenter “ceci” for pointing this out.)