JUPITER, Fla. -- What had happened to the little girl who stole the Evanston ice show as a strawberry shortcake, the tween who dazzled audiences at the 1990 U.S. Olympic Festival, the teen who upset Michelle Kwan to win the 1995 U.S. Figure Skating title, the young woman who skated in the 1998 Olympics and would earn more than $500,000 a year to skate, the twentysomething who skated a seductive tango for Sean Penn and Jude Law in the 2006 film, "All the King's Men"?
How did those images of Nicole Bobek turn into the 2009 booking picture that will haunt her for years, the picture taken after her arrest on a drug-dealing charge, the picture in which she looked both frightened and frightening?
Her eyes were hollow. Her hair, usually blond and coiffed, was black and scruffy. She had gone from a size 8 to a size 4. Her face was gaunt and scarred with pitting common among users of crystal meth. She was addicted to the drug. She was in jail.
A year later, by understanding where she was, she is finding a better place.
"Those horror stories you hear about, I could have very well been one of them," Nicole said. "It is very scary. I am thankful every day I am alive. And I feel more alive than ever, because I am not behind bars."
She was arrested June 26, 2009, as New Jersey authorities busted 28 people in what police said was a crystal meth distribution ring. She originally was charged with level three conspiracy, calling for up to 10 years in prison. The prosecution had alleged she had a significant role in the operation. She spent 11 days in jail before making bail.
A month ago, a week before her 33rd birthday, a prosecutor in Hudson County, N.J., had asked for Nicole to get 364 days in prison after she pleaded guilty to a level two conspiracy of manufacturing/distributing/dispensing crystal methamphetamine.
She stood in the courtroom for the sentencing, listening to the prosecutor's argument, thinking of the little things she would miss if she served time, her mind in an emotional state she described as "beyond terrified." She hoped the judge would see the evidence -- school, blue-collar job, drug counseling -- of how completely she had changed her habits.
Then Hudson County Superior Court judge Kevin G. Callahan pronounced her sentence: five years probation.
"I believe the judge did see ... even the mug shot ... he mentioned (the way) it compared to how you look now," she said.
The irony is that picture can become redemptive. It is an image in such stark contrast to the way Nicole looks today that she plans to use it as Exhibit A in the story of how she has taken charge of turning her life around, a story she wants to share with teenagers, a story that could exorcise the past.
"It will start with the mug shot," she said. "I don't think it could be any clearer than that."
Big city, big temptations
We were sitting in the kitchen of the bright, impeccably kept home in Jupiter that Nicole bought in 1997 and now shares with her mother, Jana, who owns a nearby gift shop. Nicole has moved around since then, but this is the place she thinks of as home, the place where Jana has lived the past 13 years.
The three-bedroom house is quintessential South Florida. Light colors. Screened-in swimming pool. A bronze statue of Nicole doing a layback spin, tucked in a corner of the living room, is the only visible display of her figure skating career.
It is here she was arrested.
Nicole sat on a couch next to the eating area, her feet tucked under her. This was the first she has spoken at length and freely with any media since her arrest. We talked off and on for two days, in the house, in her car, at her job. At first, she was reluctant to discuss the case and her addiction and what happened after she stopped skating and moved to New York in 2004. She said she wants the story to be positive.
The phone rang. Nicole talked for several minutes.
"That was great," she said to me. "It was a guy from New Jersey who runs a drug and alcohol substance abuse program, and he wants me to come and talk with them. A chance to do that is the greatest thing about this tragedy."
In the next hour, we talked about her descent into drug hell. She realizes there can be no positive without the negative.
The slide toward the edge of an abyss came after the 2004 Champions on Ice tour ended, when impresario Tom Collins gave Nicole a $20,000 gold Rolex for 10 years on his tour and a pink slip because he felt her once charismatic performances had become embarrassingly poor.
There were other setbacks: learning the boyfriend who lured her to New York already had a live-in girlfriend; the December, 2003 death of Joyce Barron, her mother's friend, who had been part of the family for nearly 30 years, helping Jana raise Nicole; the death in 1997 of Carlo Fassi, the coach whom Nicole always saw as the replacement for the father she never met.
"I take full responsibility for my actions," Nicole said. "Not everyone falls into a substance because of the loss of a job or the death of a loved one."
Nicole lived on Manhattan's lower West Side, near the Meatpacking District, one of the city's hottest party areas. She had no job, had not graduated from high school. Jana paid the rent and gave Nicole a $350 weekly allowance. Nicole, long infamous for her wild side as a teenage skater, threw herself to wolves who howled all night.
"I hopped onto the club scene," she said. "I made myself a party girl."
For Nicole, it was another form of performance, but in an arena rife with drug use. Eventually, Nicole said, she would spent $200 a week on crystal meth. The rest of the money went to clubbing clothes and eating on the cheap -- a diet featuring crackers, Ramen noodles and Spaghetti O's.
"She was nurtured as a skater since 3 years old and after that ended, she fell into a sleazy world she was not prepared for," said Sam DeLuca, her criminal defense attorney.
It was a world in which Edward Cruz, who would get 16 years for his role in the drug ring, was an acquaintance. According to DeLuca, Nicole admitted only to obtaining drugs and meeting with a person she knew was a trafficker. Nicole said she never sold drugs.
"Where they got me was I passed along something to a friend," she said. "And I didn't get a penny out of it. What I got was a little bit of it (for her use), and that's why I did it. I didn't need to sell drugs because every Monday, I had my $350 in the bank."
There was no doubt she was using. Jana guessed it, even though she saw her daughter only about three times a year from late 2004 through the middle of 2009. Jana tried not to do anything that would lead Nicole to break off contact. In late 2006, Jana made and then dropped a petition to have Nicole put into a rehab program.
"I used to joke, I'm going home to detox," Nicole said.
She chose not to admit what the drugs were doing, even at the point where she didn't recognize herself in the mirror any more.
But during a Florida visit for Jana's birthday in May, 2009, Nicole said she was ready to move back to Jupiter.
Jana was sitting on a counter stool. She shook her head, recalling how Nicole reacted when friends from New York began calling.
"She was ready to go back there. That's where the addiction was," Jana said. "She didn't realize she was getting in deeper and deeper."
And then two police officers knocked on the door.
"When the arrest happened, as terrible as it was, it was a good thing," Jana said. "It was the help she needed."
Rebel as a child
Nicole Bobek has had a long, complicated history since her birth in Chicago. "She was my love child," said Jana, 63, a Czech emigre. Nicole feels no desire to meet her father, a man who sold balloons near the Lincoln Park ice cream stand Jana Bobek and Joyce Barron ran.
Audiences loved Nicole from the time she first skated in public. Start the music, any music, and she moved in tune with it. She was a natural talent with an attention deficit issue that made her almost impossible to teach. "Like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall," said JoJo Starbuck, the Hall of Fame pairs skater who did some choreographic work with Nicole.
"I could have pushed myself harder," Nicole said. "I rebelled."
Nicole frustrated coaches. All but Fassi and Richard Callaghan, a tough-love coach who guided her to the U.S. title, frustrated her. But she left even them, changing coaches more than a dozen times.
She would return to Fassi in 1996, but he died while coaching her at the 1997 World Championships. A year later, with a hip injury severely impairing her, she fell several times at the 1998 Olympics, finishing 17th.
Along the way, she treated school as an afterthought, often leaving and hiding across the street between the time her mother dropped her off at a Colorado Springs high school and the time she was to be picked up for skating practice.
She was a wild child who came to the rink, frequently late, with her mind more on boys and cigarettes than skating. At age 17, she got two years probation after a conditional guilty plea to a 1995 felony home invasion charge in Michigan, an incident that occurred soon before she won the U.S. title and a world bronze.
"The easiest way to see Nicole is how people look at child actors," said Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins' frontman. "They don't totally mature the way a normal person does."
Corgan, also a Chicagoan and an avid sports fan, recognized Nicole when they first met in a random encounter at O'Hare in 1995. They stayed in touch for a while after that but had lost contact for several years until he read of her arrest.
Corgan, 43, had dealt with drug and alcohol problems among members of his band and his family. He called Nicole's attorney to offer his help and since has been a source of support, saying he sometimes speaks with her two or three times daily. He, Starbuck and Fassi's wife, Christa, are among those who wrote Judge Callahan to support her request for probation.
"I know that Nicole is truly ashamed, humbled and contrite by any actions that led to her associations or involvements in this conviction," Starbuck wrote. "I believe that she desperately desires to not only put this nightmare behind her, but to work hard to establish herself as an inspiration and role model again."
Starbuck spoke with Nicole the night of the sentencing.
"I said, 'Nicole, you have to prove to everyone you are who this letter says you are,' " Starbuck said. "I want that judge to sit in his easy chair some night and watch you do something great or read about it and say to himself, 'I'm glad I made that decision.' "
One day late last fall, after she had begun seeing an addiction counselor and taking classes toward a high school equivalency diploma (GED), Nicole drove the 30 miles from her home to the Palm Beach Skate Zone in Lake Worth, looking for a place to skate. After a couple of weeks, she asked rink manager Mike Bunting if she could work there.
Nicole began working for free, managing the concession stand, handling skate rentals, mopping floors, cleaning toilets. She soon was putting in so many hours Bunting paid her. She still works there, doing various jobs, and recently began teaching power skating and edge skills to the 16- to 20-year-old hockey players on the Palm Beach Junior Hawks.
Like nearly everyone who works or skates in the rink, Bunting did not know who Nicole was when she showed up. After learning about her skating, drug use and criminal history, Bunting decided not to let the past affect his judgment of her. He sees no evidence of her backsliding.
"I think I could tell," he said. "People with those issues are late for work, don't dress properly, act irritable. Nicole shows up on time, is well-dressed, handles herself well and handles customers well."
Not all were convinced Nicole had been scared straight. Some parents expressed reluctance to have their children around someone accused of drug dealing. Among them were the parents of her boyfriend, Brendan Yankee, 21, the assistant rink manager.
"When we started dating, they were concerned about me getting involved and possibly getting into trouble, and I can't blame them for thinking that way," Yankee said. "Once they started to see who Nicole really was, they welcomed (the relationship.)"
Deborah Hefferin, 43, another Skate Zone employee, has a 17-year-old son, Austin, on the hockey team Nicole instructs. Austin Hefferin's only objection is how hard she works the hockey players.
"Everyone here knows her and likes her for who she is, not who she was," Deborah Hefferin said.
Who she was. Who she is. Who she will be. There still is uncertainty about all of that, questions that remain unanswered.
Corgan told Nicole she needed to return to skating. Last winter, she appeared in the rink's Christmas show and skated at a local mall for several hours in a charity fundraiser. She recently talked with six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge about having Eldredge and Callaghan, who coach in Naples, Fla., get her back into shape.
"There's a skating body in there somewhere," Nicole joked.
She says she has stopped smoking. Her hair is blond again, the pitting on her face mostly covered with makeup, her eyes bright. The issue remains whether a woman who looks like the old Nicole will act like the old Nicole. A serious mistake, a missed probation appointment, even a positive on the court-ordered random drug tests, could put her in prison for five years.
Nicole knows skepticism about her is so deep-seated that proof will need to be constant. For now, her focus is on the GED.
"I want to finish school and write to the judge letting him know," Nicole said.
A few minutes later, she left the house for an appointment with the counselor. Then she headed to the Palm Beach County Central Detention Center. She parked her Volkwagen Eos and headed for the office of a place once called the Stockade. Inside the office is a desk for those who want to visit one of the inmates in the detention center's other buildings and a desk for those who need to register as a sexual predator, sexual offender or criminal.
She had been there the day before, waited an hour, then was told the computers were down. This time, she was the only person in line and was told the computers again were not working.
Two days earlier, on her 33rd birthday, Nicole said she had to drive to four different Palm Beach County locations to have a probation officer assigned.
Then the law gave her 48 hours to register as a criminal living in the area. She finally got it done on the third try, a day later.
"They make it really difficult for you to get back into society," she said. "It's a pain in the butt to get in trouble."
Nicole laughed. It was a whistle-in-the-graveyard laugh, the reaction of a recovering drug addict and convicted felon who knows how fortunate she is to be wasting time on bureaucracy instead of serving time in a place not unlike the Stockade.
"I couldn't have been given a bigger chance in my life to do something right," she said.
Next to the office was an open space. In the background, past the high fence and razor wire, were detention buildings for nearly 1,000 inmates.
Nicole Bobek drove past. She was on her way back to the concession stand at the skating rink. Back to rebuilding her life.
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