BIRMINGHAM, England -- Nicole Bobek is trying to make the biggest leap of all -- from wild child to champion.
Yesterday, the brassy, sassy 17-year-old American took charge at the World Figure Skating Championships, leading the
women's division after the technical program.
Today, Bobek will go for the title in the free skate, worth two-thirds of the overall score.
"It's a dream come true," Bobek said moments after bringing down the house and coming off the ice. "I was nervous before I skated. I knew it was the short program and I had to do everything."
The technical program is skating's 2-minute, 40-second torture test of required jumps and spins. One slip, and a title chance is gone.
Even veterans are victimized by nerves. France's Surya Bonaly, a five-time European champion and reigning world silver medalist, touched down with a hand on a combination jump and was placed fourth.
Joining Bobek in the top three were Russia's Olga Markova (second) and China's Lu Chen (third). And in the wings was 14-year-old American Michelle Kwan (fifth).
If the other contenders fall, Kwan could pick up a medal, perhaps even the gold, since she'll perform last in the final free-skate group.
"Oh, God, we don't talk about that [winning]," said Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll. "That would be so silly. We're here to treat it as a sport and let the chips fall where they may."
In the year after an Olympics, nearly anything is possible in skating. Witness the rise of Bobek. A year ago, she was an untamed skater who became Tonya Harding's replacement on America's world team. At the 1994 World Championships, Bobek didn't even make the cut after the technical program. Now, she's the reigning U.S. champion who leads the world.
"It feels great," Bobek said. "It goes to show that a lot of hard work pays off."
But the rise to the top has not come without a price. Bobek's personal life has been dredged through the tabloids. Here, she's known as the tough-talking American blonde, with a ring for every finger, a penchant for cigarettes and a past that includes pleading guilty to home invasion -- a juvenile charge that was dropped after it was publicized.
"I proved to a lot of people this whole incident didn't affect me," she said.
Bobek may have a frightful competitive past -- going through eight coaches in eight years. But now she is focused, willing to take direction. She trains with Richard Callaghan, the coach who guided Todd Eldredge to the men's silver medal. And she performs like a ballerina, graceful and light, able to cheat gravity for that extra split-second that separates champions from also-rans.
"When she is on, she is on," said one of her former coaches, Carlo Fassi. "She has the sparkle that is incredible. She's natural. Nothing is studied."
Eldredge said that Bobek has simply grown up.
"Last year and the year before, she looked like a kid," he said. "Now, she's projecting to the audience as a woman."
Yesterday, after hours of mostly uninspiring skating by her competitors, Bobek got her chance to perform. She was wonderful. She landed her combination jump -- a triple Lutz, double toe loop. After she completed one last triple toe loop, a smile broke across her face.
"The rest of the program was sheer fun," she said. "I said to myself, 'Yes! I got this part over with.' "
When asked if she ever dreamed of being a world champion, Bobek smiled.
"Well, one day, maybe," she said. "I didn't know about this year. It's great. I'm trying not to think about it. I'm trying to do a job out there. It's basically do or die."
Today, the wild child takes on the world.
NOTE: As expected, reigning Olympic gold medalists Oksana Grischuk and Yevgeny Platov of Russia won the ice dance competition. But in an unexpected move, the couple announced their retirement from amateur skating and will turn pro. Finland's Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko were second. France's Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy were third. The big upset was that Americans Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur moved up one place to 10th, guaranteeing that the United States receives two ice dance team places at next year's championships.