One of the many things that Sage and I have in common is our love of figure skating. I don’t exactly recall HOW we discovered this mutual love, but I am pretty sure it went something like the scene in Will and Grace where Jack and Grace bond over their mutual love for Michelle Kwan and hatred for Tara Lipinski (the way Debra Messing SAYS “Tara Lipinski” forever changed the way *I* say it. Sadly, NBC took the clip off youtube for copyright reasons. EVERYONE BOO THEM. BOO NBC BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!).
As we’ve been watching the Sochi Games it inevitably led to lots of conversation geeking out about our favorite skaters and routines. Sage and I DO agree that the heyday of figure skating was in the mid to late 90’s, where it seemed to be a perfect storm of technical difficulty, artistic and fun routines, and skaters with personality for DAYS. Our biggest complaint with skating now (especially in the men’s) is the focus on jumps and technical difficulty as opposed to artistic performance. Sure we want to see difficult jumps, but we also want skaters to make us FEEL something. That’s what’s missing today. We have jumping robots with the rare artist (looking at you Jason Brown) thrown in. Give me Kurt Browning over Patrick Chan ANY DAY.
We narrowed it down to our 16 favorites and here they are in no particular order…
Brian Boitano – “Carousel Waltz”
No, I didn’t pick this just because I am about to open in Liliom, which inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which provided the music to this short program. Okay…maybe I did just a little (get your tickets now!). Shilling aside, while I remember the “Battle of the Brians” in 1988, I was a little young to FULLY appreciate it. I had come to love Brian in his post-Olympic career as a professional through all the various Stars on Ice specials and was THRILLED when he lobbied for Pros to be able to reinstate for Olympic Eligibility (it was only fair considering Hockey, Basketball and Tennis allowed it!). The 1994 Men’s Olympic field was chock full of past favorites, including Boitano, our bb Kurt Browning (who else FOREVER remembers him asking the camera for a hug after his disastrous Short Program?), and fabulous Russian Viktor Petrenko. While none of the professional men made it to the podium, it was amazing for me to get to see my favorites in the Olympics.
“The Carousel Waltz” program is a perfect mix of athleticism and artistry, from the ‘Tano Lutz (used flawlessly by Jason Brown in this year’s long program) to the footwork to the spins. Also GOOD GOD look at his quads in those striped pants. He’s a BEAST.
Also props to Brian for fully embracing his place in pop culture playing off the South Park song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” by naming his Food Network show “What Would Brian Boitano Make?”.
Kurt Browning – “Brickhouse”
You’ve gotta love that Kurt Browning has never been afraid to put on some vinyl pants and just go full on dad-at-a-wedding on that ice. His showmanship leads the way in this program, but his skill isn’t far behind. Let me tell you about the goofball footwork in this routine, my friends: it’s fucking HARD. Some former world-class skaters look like they couldn’t wait to retire from amateur competition so they could take home fat paychecks to do shows where they just skate in circles and wave. The level of difficulty here puts most professional programs to shame. A combination here, a couple of triples there, and in true Kurt style, our man makes the whole thing look like a walk in the park. P.S. A+ butt.
Scott Hamilton – “Cuban Pete”
Scott Hamilton will forever remain figure skating’s greatest showman. Ever. Of all time. To infinity and beyond.
A bold statement, to be sure. But I dare you to argue with me.
Figure skating owes SO MUCH to Scott Hamilton. His passion and dedication to the sport kept the professional competitions in the public eye. He freaking founded Stars on Ice, which to this day seeing that show is one of my favorite teenage memories. He always participated in “Ice Wars” (OMG I EFFING MISS ICE WARS). The only word that can describe Scott Hamilton on the ice is JOY and it’s really something that is missing in today’s skaters (though again…I see it in my bb Jason Brown). We focus so much today on the technical difficulty of the sport that we lose the joy and the FUN.
And Scott doesn’t sacrifice the difficulty for the fun. It’s not like he’s going out there and doing single jumps. He’s still doing triples. He’s still doing incredibly intricate footwork. He’s doing back flips. And all the while, he’s engaging the audience. Much like Kurt Browning, we could have chosen among numerous Scott Hamilton routines (his Hair routine was the runner-up). “Cuban Pete” always stuck out in my mind though…mainly for the glorious costume.
And I can’t be the only one who longs for him to do a color commentary on my life, can I?
Michelle Kwan – “Salome”
As cheesy as it sounds, I will always remember the “Salome” program as the moment Michelle stopped being a little girl on the ice and became a woman. Michelle won her first of five world championships with this program and it was the beginning of her emergence as a true ARTIST on the ice. Look at the FIRE in her eyes during this program…she knew she had to be perfect to be Chen Lu…and she was. She was so completely in character as well, which became one of the defining traits of her career. Many would consider her Olympic “Lyra Angelica” program to be her ultimate high point, but for me, “Salome” remains the point where everything changed for Michelle Kwan.
And we will NEVER forgive Tara Lipinski for taking her Gold Medal. NEVER.
Paul Wylie – “Henry V”
Paul Wylie was an underdog going into the Albertville Olympics in 1992. Many had questioned if he even deserved to be ON the Olympic Team after a poor performance at the Nationals (even though he still got second place there). He had never placed higher than ninth at the World Championships. No one expected him to perform well at the Olympics. So imagine the shock and awe when Paul was in the bronze medal position going into the long program. But still…no one imagined that he would hold on to that placement. But Paul (aside for two slight bobbles on landings) skated the performance of a lifetime and damn near got that Gold Medal from Viktor Petrenko. I’ll never forget watching this program with my family live. There were tears and there were screams of joy for him…the one that everyone underestimated. The one where Silver was just as sweet as Gold. It’s the very definition of an “Olympic Moment” down to the American Flags waving in the audience.
Also, Scott Hamilton’s commentary on this program is glorious.
Kristi Yamaguchi – “The Power of Love”
Kristi Yamaguchi was GOOD as an amateur. She was a Gold Medalist after all. So why choose this routine over her gold medal winning one? Well, first of all, the ladies long program in 1992 was marred by several errors from all the top ladies. Kristi’s errors just happened to be the ones that got the least amount of deductions/made up for with the artistic marks, which is where her main competition Midori Ito was lacking. Kristi REALLY came into her own as a professional though as both a skater and an artist. She was dominant on the circuit, winning four Professional Championships, including back to back ones in 1996 and 1997. Her “Power of Love” program won her the gold in 1994 and we chose it because a) it’s flawless and b) we love this song SO MUCH.
Like Michelle Kwan after her, Kristi Yamaguchi was the embodiment of grace, artistry and power on the ice. She wasn’t just a mindless jumper like so many of the skaters are today (have we mentioned how much we HATE the focus on jumping yet? No??). She’s emotional and engaging and makes it all look easy. Which it most certainly is not.
Katarina Witt – “Robin Hood”
First of all, who knew that Katarina’s coach was Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Unexpected choice.
Having won double gold in ’84 and ’88, Katarina didn’t come to Lillehammer with anything to prove. As you probably remember, there was a lot of dramz happening at the time. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were too busy trying to murder each other to notice a tiny Ukrainian girl in a ginormous scrunchie coming up from behind to steal their podium. Meanwhile, forever classy Katarina showed up in her tunic and tights to skate clean in front of the world and her East German parents, who – until the wall came down – had been unable to be in the building for one of her Olympic performances.
We don’t see skaters like Katarina in international competition anymore. She’s lucky to have come up in the sport when a triple lutz combo wasn’t even a requirement to take an Olympic gold. Katarina is not a spinning top with a conveniently low center-of-gravity. I love that. Her jumps are big and unimpeachable, and her artistry doesn’t suffer for athleticism. She’s an actual woman. She has magnificent boobs. She gets her period. She was skating’s last sexpot, with the skills to back it up.
Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler – “Patricia the Stripper”
Disclaimer: Lloyd Eisler is a complete shit. When he was coaching, he sent suggestive emails to his 15-year-old student. He went on Skating with the Stars and then left his wife – who was 8 months pregnant – for his partner Kristy Swanson. We acknowledge that he is the worst, and his inclusion on this list does not mean we don’t want to punch his face. Thank you.
Now that that’s out-of-the-way, let’s talk about Brasseur and Eisler’s glory days. They were my favorite pair back in the day simply because they were so explosively athletic. Eisler is a big dude, skating-wise, and threw Isabelle around like a rag doll. The contrast between the American and the Russian school of skating was even starker in those days. Compare these two to Gordeeva and Grinkov, for example, who took the gold over their bronze in ’94. It’s ballerinas vs. acrobats.
They played up their size difference for laughs in this classic show performance. Eisler rocks a sequined gown and a blond wig, neither of which does anything to impede any of their death-defying lifts. And Isabelle even gamely does some heavy lifting, launching her partner into a throw double salchow.
By the way, I just learned in my wikipedia research that Isabelle married fellow pairs skater Rocky Marval (best name evs) and that their daughter is a junior pairs champ. That’s adorable. Her, we still like. But none for Lloyd Eisler, bye.
Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean – “Cecilia”
Torvill and Dean’s “Bolero” is probably one of the most famous Ice Dances of all time. So why then did we choose “Cecilia”? Well first of all, my friend Megan reminded me of it, and when I watched it, I remembered how much FUN this routine was. That is always what stood out to me in the glory days of the Professional Ice Skating coverage. The routines all had an element of fun and character. Yes, the nerdy guy flirting with and then eventually getting the popular girl is complete and utter schtick. But then again…isn’t most ice dancing? Torvill and Dean had perfect chemistry then and they do now, as they performed “Bolero” last week to celebrate the 30th (THIRTY YEARS OMG) Anniversary of their gold medal skate. And they were still flawless thirty years later.
Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov – “The Man I Love”
Sergei and Katia are the greatest love story figure skating has ever known. Unlike my vague memory of the “Battle of the Brians” in 1988, I have no memory of their win in 1988. But, oh…how I fell in love with them at the 1994 Games. They were so romantic and passionate and such incredible and technical skaters. They had it all. Watching them skate together felt a bit vouyeristic at times because it felt like we were intruding on intimate moments. It definitely feels that way in “The Man I Love”. Ugh. The way they LOOK at each other…the way they are always in sync…the way he tosses her around and then catches her with the gentlest of touches (well it LOOKS gentle anyway). They are love in motion.
Sergei was taken away from us when he suffered a massive heart attack in 1995 at the age of 28. I cried. I read Katia’s memoir My Sergei and cried some more. I watched all the tribute specials as the figure skating community surrounded Katia and their daughter Daria with love. It was a heartbreaking yet amazing moment to witness on my television screen as Katia took the ice solo to skate in tribute to her love. I’ll never forget that and I’ll never forget them.
Johnny Weir – “I Love You, I Hate You”
The 2010 Vancouver Men’s competition nearly put me into an early grave. Between my beautiful Johnny, sparkly Death Eater Evan Lysacek, and Evgeni “Platinum Medal” Plushenko alone, there were more sequined rivalries than all three other events combined.
As a lifelong lover of it and former skater myself, I’m allowed to acknowledge that skating is a ridiculous subjective sport, with plenty of room for politics and shenanigans to muddy the competitive waters. Johnny Weir was consistently punished for being too gay – TOO GAY FOR MALE FIGURE SKATING. And the USFSA has never been pleased that Johnny is an American skater who prefers to work with Russian coaches and choreographers. Rarely would a commentator say his name without prefacing it with the word “flamboyant” or “controversial.” And to Johnny’s credit, he never, ever backed down. He went to Vancouver knowing that he wouldn’t be judged by his skating alone. No skater ever is. I love you forever, Scott Hamilton, but in the American broadcast version of this short program, you wondered aloud if Johnny “could back up” his personality with his performance. As if he didn’t get to the Olympics by qualifying in prior competition, like everyone else. As if he just put on a fur and talked his way in. Ugh.
I digress. This performance was the embodiment of Johnny Weir’s frustration with and love of his sport. He left it all on the ice, as they say. After effortlessly knocking out the required elements, he leans in and sells the crap out of the footwork sequence. That corset. That sassy head move. And that final blown kiss to the audience? An in-the-moment ad lib. He deserved a spot on that podium, but at least he didn’t sell himself out to get there.
Oksana Baiul – 1994 Olympic Long Program
“This is gonna be close,” Scott Hamilton wagers when Oksana hits her final pose. She may have been younger than her steepest competition, but Baiul was skating to win. After two-footing one triple and doubling another, she threw in an extra triple and a double axel combo at the end to stay in the game. We’ll never know what would have happened if the Nancy and Tonya incident hadn’t distracted them from their goal, but Oksana won her gold by keeping her head down and getting it done. (“Shoulda started with a go-to girl, Jack.”)
Sadly, the success was too-much, too-soon and Oksana’s career never hit this height again. Still, she’ll always have Lillehammer and my first hamster, who I named after her.
Sarah Hughes – 2002 Olympic Long Program
After placing 4th in the short program everyone counted Sarah Hughes out. After all…how could she possibly surpass the likes of Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya, and Sasha Cohen? Her Olympics were declared over…except no one told that to Sarah. With exactly nothing left to lose, Sarah took the ice in the long program and nailed every single element of the program. My favorite thing? The “FUCK YEAH” expressions on her face after landing both of her triple-triple combinations. She left it all on the ice and brought the house down in Salt Lake City. She threw down the gauntlet for her competition. Kwan, Slutskaya, and Cohen all had mistakes in their programs, which made Sarah Hughes, the American everyone discounted, the Olympic Champion. BOOM.
Moral of the story? The Olympics aren’t over until the last person skates.
Philipe Candeloro – “The Godfather”
As I revisit these programs, I can’t help but mourn how boring everyone is now. Maybe if we put less emphasis on loading programs up with barely completed quads, we’d have more Phillippes and less (snooze) Patrick Chans.
Look at the height he gets on these things. That opening triple axel is so big that he has time to correct his crooked position in the air. Even his flying sit spin is massive. Phillippe is not the most graceful. But he earns his artistic scores by hilariously acting out some scenes from The Godfather . And frankly, there’s not enough of that happening in Olympic competition these days.
When Stars on Ice would come to town, I’d go with a big caravan of girls from the rink. And the skating moms went absolutely fucking nuts for this, Phillippe’s Rocky program. There’s running and boxing gloves and the Candeloro spin and shirtlessness. So, okay, maybe we went a little nuts too. Can you blame us?
Surya Bonaly – 1998 Olympic Long Program
Grace: “Oh, my god! The best! Surya Bonaly!”
Jack and Grace: “Surya Bonaly!”
Jack: “She’s French.”
Grace: “She’s powerful.”
Jack: “She’s black.”
Grace: “She wears blue eye shadow and does illegal backflips.”
Jack: “She scares me. I crave her.”
I remember being told by skating commentators that Surya Bonaly had a “bad attitude.” She was “unsportsmanlike.” I sort of believed it, because I was ten. But I was also obsessed with her, because she’s spectacular. You can’t blame Surya for being a little…well…surly (sorry) when she was constantly being unfairly scored under her tinier, whiter competitors. Surya could bench press Tara Lipinski one-handed. Maybe she has.
The rule book says that jumps landed on two feet are illegal, thereby banning back flips in amateur competition. Because she’s a badass, Surya Bonaly made a joke out of that ruling and out of the judges. They weren’t pleased. In Nagano in ’98, Surya put a back flip into her long program and landed it on one foot. On ice. In skates. She flipped herself UPSIDE DOWN and landed ON ONE FOOT. The establishment was not amused and marked the move as illegal anyway.
These girls are athletes, not mannequins. If Ashley Wagner feels like she deserved a better score, she’s got the right to look annoyed about it. If Surya Bonaly feels like she’s being discriminated against, she should be able to protest without being labeled a “sore loser.” If you prefer your female skaters to be mindlessly smiley and demure, I can point you in the direction of the nearest Ice Capades Barbie.
Kate Mosely and Doug Dorsey – 1992 Olympic Long Program
Together, they make flower!
We’ll never know if Douglas Dorsey and Kate Moseley took home the gold, but we do know that they might not be right for anyone else. They defied the laws of physics with the Pamchenko (totally illegal, despite what Anton’s “final stages of Ukrainian alcohol psychosis” might say) and charmed the judges – we assume – with their will-they, won’t-they sexual tension. Eat your heart out, Lorie Peckarovski.
And those are our favorites! We know we left some greats off the list (So sorry Elvis Stojko) so feel free to share YOUR favorite figure skating moments with us in the comments!