I was channel surfing in commercial breaks from an NFL playoff game last Sunday when a figure skating show, Improv-Ice, arrested my attention.
There was Nicole Bobek, back on national television as a performer (for the second time in 15 days), looking extraordinarily fit, supremely confident and so overwhelmingly happy she couldn't stop smiling.
"It's almost ridiculous," Bobek said of her expression when we spoke by telephone. "Sometimes I want to slap the smile off my face, but I can't. It's how I feel out there."
And why not? A little more than two years ago Bobek was a dropout from the skating world in which she once was a star, battling a crystal meth addiction and hoping to stay out of jail on a drug distribution charge.
When a judge gave her five years probation instead of prison, Bobek immediately grasped her good fortune. During a visit with her in Florida 16 months ago that led to a lengthy story in the Tribune, she said, "I couldn't have been given a bigger chance in my life to do something right."
From the way she is performing to the testimony of those who have employed her, skated with her, coached her and gone to bat for her, all evidence is that at 34, Bobek finally can be taken at her word.
"She definitely has won back my confidence," said Steve Disson, the skating impresario in whose Pandora NBC Skating Series shows Bobek made her recent TV appearances. "Her attitude and cooperation were terrific, and it's nice to see her skating well."
That skating once again defines her is what Bobek wants.
"I can say whatever, I can act however, but the skating speaks for itself, and I have put a lot of work into it," Bobek said.
Disson gave her a contract at the urging of Lynn Plage, a skating consultant, and JoJo Starbuck, the Hall of Fame pairs skater who has become mentor, choreographer and guardian angel to Bobek.
"She was always the girl who could get away with anything, but now she has fortitude, dedication and discipline," Starbuck said. "Physically, it has been a huge battle for her, but she never has complained."
There also have been financial issues. Bobek, a 1998 U.S. Olympian, has been able to afford just one new costume; the rest are 10 years old. She continues to work 25 hours a week running the Zamboni and teaching power skating to hockey players in Lake Worth, Fla., at the Palm Beach Skate Zone, whose manager, Mike Bunting, threw an employment lifeline to her while she awaited her legal fate.
"She was at the depths, and it looks like she is going right back to the top, but this time she is better prepared to be there," Bunting said. "I am so proud of what she has done with her life, and she deserves all the credit for it."
Richard Callaghan, who coached Bobek to the 1995 U.S. title, is giving her free lessons. When Callaghan saw the once undisciplined Bobek consistently arrive on time, he knew this was a different person.
"She is more mature, more responsible, more in control," Callaghan said.
And she has retained the charisma that made audiences love her since she was a 5-year-old strawberry shortcake in the Evanston ice show.
"She can put on a piece of music and be a star in 30 seconds," Callaghan said.
Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen recently did two shows with Bobek.
"She looks great and has a great energy about her," Cohen said. "It's wonderful to see her back. She belongs on the ice."
Bobek looks better than ever. In the past year, she lost 10 pounds almost incidentally from training on trapeze and aerial hoops at the South Florida Circus Arts School. She hopes to incorporate circus routines on the ice. For now, the improved physical condition has helped her recapture all her old double jumps except the axel.
"When she first came to me, it was amazing how much she had to relearn," Callaghan said. "I could see her frustration, but she plugged through it."
Bobek spends about a week each month living with Starbuck and her family in Madison, N.J. She has moved from her mother's house to an apartment near the Skate Zone. She needs to retake — and pass — the math test to earn her high school equivalency diploma.
Her lawyer has been gathering testimonials to ask for a reduction of the probation. Starbuck is among those writing on her behalf.
"The drastic transformation I see in her is like Scrooge in 'A Christmas Carol,''' Starbuck said. "She woke up one morning ready to be grateful and generous."
Bobek has skated free in several charity shows, including a breast cancer benefit three weeks ago in New York. She has been invited to Figure Skating in Harlem's April "Skating With the Stars" gala. As a star.
"I knew what I needed to do more than anything was get in shape and prove to myself I still had this in me," Bobek said. "I had to accept the gifts God has given me and use them to my fullest instead of pushing them away. I'm married to my sport more than anything now."
She understands that self-realization may not have been possible without having lost her way so badly after abandoning skating for the literal high life several years ago.
"What I went through was a blessing in disguise," she said. "As painful as it was, all that stuff really bloomed me into the person I need to be and want to be."
The Improv show, where the skaters have to invent a program only hours after learning what their music is, was the perfect vehicle for Bobek. It also was another way to prove she is able to handle a mother of a job: Reinventing herself.
(Improv Ice will air again on the Ovation Network Thursday at 7 and 9 p.m.)
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