People have been coming up to her as if she’d joined the Moonies - or been kidnapped with Tonya Harding.
“Where have you been?” they wonder.
“I’ve been around,” Nicole Bobek tells them. “In my own secret way.”
Two years ago this week, Bobek won the U.S. figure skating title in Providence, R.I. Last year, she pulled out of the nationals with a sprained ankle after the short program - and wandered off the radar screen. This week, the Wild Child is back, still saucy and pouty and mercurial - and eager to make a statement.
“I know I have to prove to a lot of people that I’m not out of the sport, that I’m still in it,” says Bobek, who skates in the short program tonight in Nashville Arena. “A lot of people have questions: ‘Where’s Nicole? What’s she doing?’ So it’s ‘Hey, don’t forget about me.”’
After Bobek hurt her back on a rowing machine last fall, she went into a funk. Word came from Lake Arrowhead, the mountain aerie 2 hours east of Los Angeles where Bobek trains, that she couldn’t complete a program, could barely land a triple jump.
She went to Tokyo last month for an open event and finished last behind Katarina Witt, who’s past her prime. Michelle Kwan, the defending champion who trains alongside Bobek at the Ice Castle, didn’t mention her when asked to list her main challengers here.
When Bobek didn’t turn up for her scheduled Tuesday practice here, rumor was that she’d pulled out, that she was nowhere near ready to take on a bunch of high-jumping high schoolers like the 16-year-old Kwan and the 14-year-old Tara Lipinski and didn’t want to be humiliated.
Ready or not, though, Bobek was determined to be here. With the Olympics coming up next year, she can’t afford to be out of the loop for two seasons. She at least has to leave a calling card.
“I just want to go out and be able to prove I’ve been working hard, that I can get through this,” Bobek says. “Even if I don’t place in the top three, I can give it everything I have and have something to be proud of.”
It’s not as though she hasn’t proven herself before. Bobek came from behind to win the 1995 title (“No one can ever take that away from me”), claimed the bronze at that year’s world championships ahead of Kwan and skated bravely on an unstable ankle last year before tearfully pulling out.
Yet Bobek is still dogged by her Wild Child image. Her intermittent focus and whimsical work habits have frustrated some of the world’s best coaches - Frank Carroll, Kathy Casey, Evy Scotvold, Richard Callaghan and Carlo Fassi, who’s now on his second tour, Bobek’s 10th mentor in nine years. “You never know her,” says Fassi, who also coached Olympic champions Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.
There is nobody like her in the sport, a 19-year-old Rockette on skates - blonde and leggy and curvy, with a wink and a shimmy. Nobody else has a promise ring from a Las Vegas construction worker.
Many skating insiders predicted that she’d never win the title, that Bobek didn’t have the discipline or the consistency, that the judges didn’t want a party girl as their ladies’ champion.
When Bobek did win, she couldn’t believe it herself. “No, no,” she said, shaking her head and weeping. “They’ve made a mistake.”
Suddenly, there were people around Bobek with praise and paychecks and promises and very little reason for her to say no.
“Everyone tells you how good you are,” says Callaghan. “They offer you this and that. You can almost lose your perspective on how you got there. And after two or three months of everybody throwing roses at your feet, you have to go back to work.”
Work - at least the kind of grueling three-practices-a-day work required to be a champion - has never held Bobek in thrall. She split with Callaghan later in the year and went with Barbara Roles Williams.
When she probably should have been honing her programs to defend her U.S. title, Bobek signed on for a Nutcracker tour - and sprained her ankle. When she went to San Jose for last year’s nationals, she was in no shape to skate a competitive program and she knew it.
There are times when 1995 seems a million years ago. The Wild Child comes here this week as a forgotten woman, but that has its benefits. There is no pressure on Bobek and few expectations. “Expectations?” she muses. “Make it through my program.”
When someone mentions the Olympics, Bobek rolls her eyes. “I’m thinking about right now,” she says. “Just going out there and doing what I can do.”
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