Commemorative t-shirt and button from the 1990 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
From February 6 to 11, 1990, over two hundred skaters descended upon Salt Lake City, Utah to compete in the 1990 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The event marked the second time the city had hosted America's national competition, the first being in 1984 when Scott Hamilton, Rosalynn Sumners and Kitty and Peter Carruthers were victorious on their way to winning Olympic medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo.
In actuality, the Utah organizers were given the opportunity to host the 1989 U.S. Championships, which were ultimately held in Baltimore, Maryland. Quoted in the February 6, 1990 issue of "The Deseret News", local chairperson of development Talitha Day explained, "They called in August of '88 and wanted us to hold the championships in February of '89. We could have done it. But it would have meant hosting it two years in a row and we decided we would rather assure ourselves of a really great event in '90".
Hosted by the Utah Figure Skating Club and the Junior League of Salt Lake City, the 1990 event marked the final time that school figures were included in the championship events. Figures were contested at the Bountiful Recreation Center (about a half an hour drive from the main venue) and free skating events at the Salt Palace. Six skaters participating (Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo, Troy Goldstein, Natasha Kuchiki, John Frederiksen and Brad Cox) took on double duty, competing in both singles and pairs, making the drive time between two rinks extremely tight at times.
Attendance wasn't the best, to say the very least. The senior women's free skate fell well short of a sellout with less than five thousand, three hundred tickets sold and less than four thousand watched the senior men's free skate. Event co-chairperson Nita Sniteman claimed a rumour that tickets were sold out when they in fact were not contributed to the empty seats. Others cited the fact decent television coverage was available and the fact it was a non-Olympic year as reasons that people chose to stay away. Whatever the case may have been, those who did not attend missed a fascinating event full of drama and double Axels galore. Today, we'll hop in the machine and set the dial back to 1990 to explore the stories, skaters and scandals of those Salt Lake City Nationals!
THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS
Novice pairs and ice dance competitions were not contested at the U.S. Championships until 1991. Lakewood, Ohio's Lisa Ervin was victorious in the novice women's event, defeating Joanna Ng of Woodland Hills, California and Victoria Pietrasik of Northbrook, Illinois. In the novice men's event, fifteen year old Clay Sniteman of Farmington, Utah seemed destined for a medal in front of a hometown crowd. Second heading into the free skate, his free skate was so disastrous that he dropped to fifteenth place in a field of seventeen. "Bad isn't the word for it," said the disappointed teenager in the February 9, 1990 issue of "The Deseret News". The novice men's free skate turned out to be a bit of a splatfest - twelve skaters took tumbles - but Ryan Hunka emerged victorious over John Frederiksen and Eric Bohnstedt with one of the few clean skates of the competition. Both Hunka and Ervin were coached by Carol Heiss Jenkins.
In the junior men's event, Scott Davis emerged victorious over Michael Chack, John Baldwin Jr., Steven Smith and a host of other young upstarts. Tristan Vega and Richard Alexander maintained their original program lead to win junior pairs, while Susan Purdy and Scott Chiamulera moved up to second and Aimee Offner and Brian Helgenberg dropped to third. After only skating together for ten months, Beth Buhl and Neale Smull dominated the junior ice dance event from start to finish, winning the event over Krista Schulz and Jonathan Stine, Rachel Lane and Eric Meier and Cheryl Demkowski and Jeffrey Czarnecki with an intricate free dance to Leonard Bernstein's "On The Town". Fourteen year old Alice Sue Claeys of Burnsville, Minnesota defeated sixteen year old Geremi Weiss of Silver Spring, Maryland and sixteen year old Dana MacDonald of Arlington Heights, Virginia to win the junior women's title. Claeys' victory was particularly significant in that she had placed only eleventh the year before.
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
Los Angeles' Bob Pellaton and Kellie Creel withdrew due to injury prior to the senior pairs event and were replaced by Ann-Marie and Brian Wells. Californians needn't have worried, for Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo had zero problems defending their national title despite rumours swirling in the stands that they were breaking up. With two outstanding performances, the two future U.S. singles champions easily bested Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand, Sharon Carz and Doug Williams and Calla Urbanski and Mark Naylor for the top spot. Two months prior to the event, Kristi and Rudy's coach Jim Hulick had passed away at the age of thirty eight. In the December 12, 1989 issue of the "Los Angeles Times", Galindo remembered, "It always seemed like he blocked out his sickness for us. It was like he was living through us. I really do have admiration for him, to put all the medical things aside to do something for us. I'll never forget him standing there just before we would go out onto the ice and saying, 'Just go out there and have fun.'"
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar
Fifteen teams contested the senior ice dance title in Salt Lake City. In their tenth trip to the U.S. Championships, Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar were the class of the field, expanding upon their lead in the compulsories with a fine Samba OSP and a sensational free dance to "Hit The Road, Jack" and "Singin' In The Rain" choreographed by Phillip Mills, replete with intricate tap dance sequences. Silver medallists April Sargent and Russ Witherby wisely scrapped a Rachmaninoff free dance that hadn't gone over well with the judges at that autumn's Skate America and returned to the more traditional, ballroom piece that they had used the year previously.
Skating an unconventional free dance to "Fire And Ice" and "Remembering A Heartbeat", Suzy Semanick and Ron Kravette settled for bronze ahead of Jeanne Miley and Michael Verlich, Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow and Elizabeth McLean and Ari Lieb.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Christopher Bowman. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.
The name on everybody's lips in Salt Lake City was Christopher Bowman. The defending U.S. Champion and World Silver Medallist arrived in Utah with a purported back injury. As a result, he had missed five weeks of training and was five pounds overweight. Many felt that there was much more to the story. Quoted in E.M. Swift's piece "Hans Brinker From Hell" in the February 12, 1990 of "Sports Illustrated" magazine, coach Frank Carroll said, "No more arguing with him... No spooning him pabulum. If he doesn't want to train, he can take his skates off. I'm not going to hold his hand. Christopher is a wonderful person, has great personality and can charm the skin off a snake. But to get him out on a day-to-day basis, to get improvement from him, to get him to love what he's doing is sheer hell. There's no doubt he's the most talented boy in the world, but he has an awful lot to sort out." Whatever the reality of the situation might have been, Bowman opted to compete. After losing in the school figures to eighteen year old Todd Eldredge, Daniel Doran and Paul Wylie, he missed two of his three jumping passes in his original program. He placed fourth and opted to withdraw. Quoted in the February 12, 1990 issue of "The Montreal Gazette", Bowman surmised, "When I cranked the throttle full speed, it knocked me out." Backstage, rumours persisted that the USFSA told him to pull out and offered him a bye to the World Championships because he was the one that earned the spots. Allusions were made to the effect that Bowman might have been told to withdraw because he would have failed drug tests. Quoted in a June 2008 piece in "International Figure Skating" magazine, Bowman claimed, "I never competed while under the influence. I was terrified of that. I was very conscientious of the time frame I would most likely be tested. I knew exactly how long a drug would be in my system before I needed to stop for testing. I never failed a test."
I spoke with Paul Wylie in September 2016 regarding the event. "80% of the competition I won," he said with a chuckle. "I was third in the figures and it was a factor system. It was the closest I ever came to winning Nationals. Because of the way the factor system was structured, Chris' points (even though he withdrew) didn't disappear. But it's all water under the bridge!" At the time, Paul was coached by Evy and Mary Scotvold. "I was training as much as I could," he explained. "There were times when I had to prioritize school when I had finals or exams come up. Generally... I didn't prioritize skating as much as I did school. If something had to give, I would skip skating, or go late in the day. In '89... the courses I had to take were just not at the right time of day essentially and so, I ended up having to skate in the afternoons which was notoriously crowded at the rink where I was skating. So, I was skating with all these little kids and also, the way I had my schedule I took Wednesdays off, so I was training maybe five days a week but with a giant day off in between and my coach was not happy about it but it was the only way I could get the full load in and move things along. What I remember about those Nationals is that it was kind of do or die for me because the year before I had taken a full load at Harvard and didn't have my best skate at Nationals. I was third and didn't make the World team so I was kind of fighting my way back on the World team again. I felt like 'man, I don't even know if I want to continue skating.' At the end of the day, it was a shame that I didn't win. I skated the last figure - I did the loop - and that was the last figure at the Nationals. Obviously, they all say 'there was senior competition afterwards for figures' but they were the last sort of real, qualifying figures." Doug Mattis, who placed fifth in the figures in 1990 and eighth overall, recalled it differently, claiming it was he and not Paul who skated that final figure. Still competing, decades later, those fabulous men are!
Twenty one year old Jill Trenary was a heavy favourite to win a third U.S. title in Salt Lake City but things almost went awry in the school figures when hometown favourite Holly Cook won the final school figure, the loop. However, Trenary took the overall win in the school figures ahead of Cook and Tonya Harding. Kristi Yamaguchi was fifth; Nancy Kerrigan sixth. In the original program, Trenary fell on a double Axel and was defeated by Yamaguchi and Harding but still luckily managed to hold on to her overall lead.
The free skate was a different story altogether. Trenary came out guns blazing and delivered what was arguably one of the best free skates of her entire career, earning six 5.9's for technical merit and eight 5.9's and one 6.0 for composition and style, winning her third and final U.S. title with first place ordinals from all nine judges. Quoted in the March 18, 1992 issue of "The Deseret News", she stated, "I've never felt better about myself. This is the best I've ever skated - by far." Though she botched multiple jumps in her free skate, Yamaguchi delivered a technically demanding free skate to hold on to the silver medal, narrowly placing ahead of Kerrigan in the free skate in a five-four split. Quoted in "The Deseret News", Yamaguchi commented, "I was a little disappointed after both falls but I had to regain my concentration and go on with the rest of my program. I think I was thinking too much and wasn't letting my body do what it's trained to do." Held back by her result in the figures, Kerrigan lost out on the bronze medal to Cook. Recalling the experience of skating in front of a hometown crowd at Nationals in the February 6, 1999 issue of "The Deseret News", Cook recalled, "I felt a lot of pressure. It was like everyone had heard of Holly Cook, but now they were going to watch her skate. I was terrified. But I felt nothing but support from the community." Jeri Campbell placed fifth, Tonia Kwiatkowski sixth and Tonya Harding imploded with a disastrous free skate that featured only one clean triple jump and plummeted to seventh. She claimed to have been deathly sick all week with what later turned out to be pneumonia. Prior to the free skate, she allegedly had a fever of one hundred and three and her doctors told her to withdraw. She elected to compete anyway. Quoted in the February 8, 1990 issue of "The Globe And Mail", Harding said, "I would have to be dying not to skate. I've worked too hard this year to let it stop right here."
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