Pushing the envelope

• Surya Bonaly discusses the backflip, the quad and competitive skating

Somewhere in France in 1975 an 18-month-old girl has figure skates laced to her feet for the first time. She didn’t do quadruple jumps or backflips the first time she stepped on the ice, but by the time she was 18 years old, she would already be the World Junior Champion and a three-time French National Champion.

Surya Bonaly, along with her mother/coach Suzanne Bonaly, would go on to win six more French National Championships (for a total of nine) and five European Championships before turning pro after the 1998 Winter Olympics. Bonaly was the first person—man or woman—to land the quadruple jump in competition, and is the only skater to land a backflip on one foot.

Despite all of her firsts, Bonaly’s best finish in the Winter Olympics was fourth in 1994. Competitive skating is often as much about whom you know as how well you skate, and Bonaly’s style of pushing the envelope of competitive women’s skating didn’t win her many friends among the judges.

Bonaly, who resides in Las Vegas, recently became a U.S. citizen. She’s currently preparing for the Champions On Ice tour, which kicks off April 4, although she also teaches figure skating to adults and children in Nevada.

Bonaly was in Rockford March 13 along with Viktor Petrenko and pairs team Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny for the Champions for Charity Sixth Annual Boot Skatin’ Benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Rockford Health Systems Ronald McDonald Care Mobile. She joined The Rock River Times on the phone from her home in Las Vegas March 9 to discuss her visit to Rockford.

TRRT: This is your fourth year coming to this event in Rockford. What keeps you coming back?

Bonaly: I like the show. It’s nice. It was fun. It’s nice because usually we do shows for kids, and it’s nice because some kids are not feeling too well. So I think it’s fun because even for us, its nice to be able to do and at least for the kids they will be very, very happy.

TRRT: I heard that you were also quite a gymnast. How did you decide between gymnastics and skating?

Bonaly: Skating at least I know, even if I’m not a big champion I will still be able to do it. There’s not really a future in gymnastics, especially 10 to 15 years ago. But now I think that’s changing.

(Bonaly said she still does gymnastics and uses the sport as a way to strengthen her body for skating, although she recently injured her Achilles recently doing gymnastics.)

So I try to stay away from it because I really love it because I know it’s what keeps me strong. It’s funny because I’ve been doing gymnastics for 20 years and then I break my two Achilles.

TRRT: Your signature move is a backflip where you land on one blade. When did you start the backflip and why did you decide to try it?

Bonaly: When I was gymnast, I used to do double backflip. I had been skating for a little while … with the help of my mom and coach, we decided to do it. I created my own backflip when I was 18. I thought maybe just single on ice. They said long time ago that in competition, you had to land on one foot, and they thought no one would do it—so I did it. In 1998, I was first to land a backflip in competition on one foot. It’s cool to think that maybe in 20 years, it will be open and I was first to do it.

TRRT: Why do you think the judges didn’t want skaters doing a backflip in competition?

Bonaly: Skating is not very open-minded, especially for girls. I don’t know, it’s just a rule. Maybe they don’t want you to do anything dangerous.

TRRT: As part of your visit to Rockford, you’ll be meeting with some Learn to Skate kids before the events to teach them a little about skating. For those who are not lucky enough to attend that session, what kind of advice do you give to kids starting out?

Bonaly: Advice for someone who starts skating … to have a good coach. I was lucky, I didn’t have to worry because my mom was a good coach. It just takes time. Also, they should just do some sport—any other sport other than skating. You have to be really strong in your mind because sport is also for fun, and you must be courageous because you fall sometimes, but you have to get up. But also doing sport helps build character in your life. And maybe later on, you will need it.

TRRT: Do you worry about falling?

Bonaly: Not really because you fall all the time—just get up and move on and you try to do something else to get people to forget you fell. It’s better to fall than to never try. At least if you fall, you have one chance to do it to win.

TRRT: You were one of the first skaters to land the quad (a jump with four rotations). How hard was it and what was it like?

Bonaly: The quadruple was pretty difficult. They’re very, very rare. Even 10 years ago, I was one of the first to do it. And even some judges wonder why I do it, and they give me bad marks. You need strength and power and big legs. For me, it was real easy when I was doing it.

TRRT: Do you think anyone will ever do anything beyond a quad?

Bonaly: I hope so because in every sport, you have to try to go better. It’s beautiful because it’s a sport and technology. So they should be able to. Sometimes I say I could have done more than quad.

TRRT: Can you explain the relationship you have with the crowd while you’re skating? Do you feed off them?

Bonaly: For some people, it’s scary. Just some energy and feeling the connection between us and the audience and we love to hear them clap. Hopefully, this show people will like. I also like this because it’s a small city because people really appreciate it a lot. They’re just like crazy and they just want more.

TRRT: What role do you think height plays in skating? (Bonaly, at 5 foot 2, is among the shorter skaters.)

Bonaly: For guys, too tall kind of difficult. For girls, I think it’s good to be kind of small. It’s easier to turn and have power. It’s very difficult for those who are tall and slim.

TRRT: What’s your favorite music to perform to?

Bonaly: I don’t know because I do so many shows all over the world. Sometimes I have special programs like in Russia I had Russian music. It was the best show.

(Bonaly said she’s also skated to live music, including a performance by Supertramp.) It was pretty good and people really liked it.

TRRT: Is it difficult to perform to live music?

Bonaly: The difference is when you practice to the music but up there with the singer it might be different.

I skated once to Patty Labelle. It was a really good number. I think it’s good for them (the musician) also because they’ve never done it before.

TRRT: What’s your favorite program to perform?

Bonaly: I don’t know. I do so many. Some people just like one style. So no matter what, they skate just one kind of music. But for me, I like all kinds of music—diversity. I think it’s fun for the crowd.

TRRT: What skaters did you like growing up? Who were your idols?

Bonaly: When I was a kid, when I was 10, I didn’t see much skating because we didn’t have TV. I liked Midori Ito and Tonya Harding. Even now, there are some good champions. Tonya Harding, you would see her, and your eyes would just pop open. She was good. When you do sports, you need to see power. She was powerful. When those two girls were skating, you were just like, “Whoa.”

TRRT: What skaters do you like today?

Bonaly: I like Michelle Kwan. I like the way she acts and competes. She’s very good inside. So many skaters we see are good like one year. And she’s lucky to be American because when you’re good, they help you be better. In America, they try to make you like a queen. It’s just like in America, I like it here.

I wish I could have stayed four more years skating. Even being here, I skate pretty good. I wish I could come back and be amateur. Once we say we are professional, we cannot come back and play again.

Especially my French team since I left, they haven’t really helped much, and they didn’t really support me much. It’s not like a fight or anything, we just don’t communicate.

TRRT: What

goes through your mind from the moment you step on the ice to the moment you finish your routine?

Bonaly: When I put on my makeup, I always think it’s like a competition. I just try to do the best I can. I try very much every day. Some people don’t care. But for me, I can be very upset if I skate bad. I try to do my best even if it’s a small-time show. I’m like, “I care,” when some are like, “I don’t care.”

TRRT: What’s the key to jumping?

Bonaly: There’s a very tiny chance that you’re going to land on your blades. Just to be straight and tight and be in a good position to take off. Already I know how I feel when I skate when I’m teaching. You need power to jump. It’s just things you think about, and sometimes you jump and it’s not that easy anymore. It’s never difficult because my mom, she would always correct me. Some skaters are like, “I lost my jump,” and I’m like, “lost where?”

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