Christopher Bowman
1967 - 2008

By Alexandra Stevenson for iceskatingintnl.com

 

Christopher Bowman, one of the most talented, handsome and troubled skaters the United States has ever produced, has died at the premature age of 40.  Bowman was found dead in his motel room at the Budget Inn in North Hills, CA at 12:06 p.m. on January 10.   His mother, Joyce Bowman, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, "He just passed away in his sleep. His friend told me that he was fine. He just went to bed and didnít wake up."

Bowman was a dazzling competitive skater, with extraordinary charisma which earned him the title of "Bowman, the Showman." But Sports Illustrated dubbed him "Hans Brinker from Hell" for his antics at the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary where he shared a room in the Olympic village with his us teammate, the far more conservative, Paul Wylie.  Asked to compare himself to Bowman at that time, Wylie said, "Iím the one that mothers want their daughters to date but heís the one the daughters want to date."  Wylie said he would go to bed early only to be woken later on by Bowman jumping on his bed yelling, "Good Morning Vietnam!"  Winner of that Olympic gold, Brian Boitano, said of Bowman, "If I had to pick the three most talented skaters of all time, I would pick Christopher. He had natural charisma, natural athleticism, could turn on a crowd in a matter of seconds and he always seemed so relaxed about it."

In his competitive career, Bowman frequently skated in black, discretely sequined, which complimented his dashing raven hair. He won two U.S. Senior titles, 1989 and 1992. In his six World (Senior) Championship appearances from 1987 to 1992, he finished seventh, fifth, second, third, fifth and fourth. In his two Olympic appearances, 1988 and 1992, he finished seventh and fourth. His medal tally included gold at three Skate Americas and one in the NHK Trophy in Japan. He turned professional, joining Ice Capades after the 1992 worlds.  Later, he was a respected television commentator for the sport for ABC and ESPN.  After retiring from performing he began coaching in the Detroit area, where he lived until a year ago.

Bowman was probably the most famous male skater ever who never won an Olympic medal or a World Championship. He was his era's rock star of the skating world. He had all the sexuality of the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger but was better looking. He had a polished veneer, primarily engineered by coach Frank Carroll, and appealed to both male and female spectators. In those days it was very important for male competitors to appear "manly" and his orientation was never questioned.  Bowman was not balletic.  He was a superb athlete with very good technique and a great flow over the ice. This writerís favorite of his routines was set to "La Cucaracha."  If todayís generation of skaters want to learn what it means to project and connect with an audience, they merely have to watch Bowmanís YouTube postings.  He was certainly unique.

His sexuality was such that the normally staid older female judges would flock to watch his practices even if they werenít officiating in that discipline. Later male skaters followed in his footsteps and were certainly sexy. 1992 Olympic champion Victor Petrenko and 1994 and 1998 Olympic bronze medalist Philippe Candeloro took to performing partial strip teases during their exhibitions. Though they received deafening applause, none approached Bowman's innate projection of himself. There was no barrier between Bowman and the audience, an outward naturalness which must have been enhanced by his acting experiences. 

Bowman was not particularly famous in Europe, but, he made an incredible impact on anyone who did witness him perform. Sports writers are notoriously cynical. Yet one in Britain declared, "I still remember him from the Calgary Olympics." His interest, of course, was also fueled by the question of whether the death was a suicide or an overdose of drugs.

An autopsy, performed on January 12, was not helpful. "The cause of death has not been determined," said Los Angeles County coroner Lt. Richard Hanna. An unspecified prescription was found at the scene of his death but nothing illegal and no drug paraphernalia. Coroner officials said they might need to six to eight weeks to determine the cause. There was no sign of trauma.

During his amateur years Bowman and USFSA officials were often questioned by the media about his suspected drug use. The charges were always denied until Bowman talked to Christine Brennan for her book, Inside Edge which was published in 1996. He told her he smoked his first joint at 10 and was 16 when he got into cocaine. That escalated to a $950-a-day habit which forced him into the Betty Ford Center for a two-month stay before the 1988 Olympic Games.

His unconventional attitude to life was reflected in the tattoo on his left arm which read "Nobodyís Perfect". A widely told incident occurred on one Champions on Ice tour. He was discovered sleeping in the baggage hold of the luxury bus which transported the performers. He had returned from a night out and was so out of it, he couldnít find the hotel entrance where they were staying. But he recognized the bus and managed to get inside where he passed out. He was still unconscious when the driver opened the compartment to stow luggage for the outward trip.

In 1993, while touring with Ice Capades, Bowmanís claimed he was mugged in a seedy Pittsburg hotel but didnít explain why he was there. That year he told the New York Times, "Iím somewhat of a personality. I cultivate that. People are not there to see my skating, but to see me. I donít expect to be in an American Express commercial. Iíd have to be the guy who lost his credit card."

In April 94, he was arrested in Franklin, MA, while driving a Harley Davidson motorcycle with an expired license plate. Cocaine was found on him. Bowman confessed to Brennan that he had been "arrested 27 times for stupid stuff, stealing peopleís credit cards, scams on banks and ripping off ATM machines."

The flamboyant Canadian skater and artist, Toller Cranston, also wrote about Bowmanís drug problems, in his book Zero Tollerance (with Tolerance misspelled deliberately as a play on Cranstonís first name).  Cranston replaced Frank Carroll, as Bowmanís coach after the Worlds in 1990 in Halifax, Canada. The previous year Carroll said, "Everyone agrees Christopher has the most talent of anyone. But he parties and has a girl in every port including most communist countries."

Carroll had taught Bowman for 18 years, since he was 5, and felt Bowman might have done better if he hadnít wildly improvised during the free routine in the 1990 world championship which included adding a very risky second triple Axel after he messed up the first one. Much later, at the 1998 Olympic Games, where Carroll was training Michelle Kwan, he was asked about Bowman. "Am I friends with him? No. I would say, ĎHello" if our paths crossed but Iím still angry that I put so much time into him. Iím angry with myself, not him, because I invested so much time with him. I didnít read the signs."

Ellen Burka, who taught Cranston, and whom Cranston called in to help him with Bowman, said, in 1990, "Christopher must have made a pact with the devil to become as good as he is, but he needs someone to supervise him 24 hours a day, and his mother is the best one to do it."

Cranston revealed details such as Bowman nearly getting himself killed in Toronto in a drug transaction in which the dealer wasnít paid. Cranston quickly discovered he could not handle Bowman, and Bowman moved back to California where John Nicks took over his training. On hearing the sad news, Nicks told the Associated Press, "He was a wonderful talent and a wonderful showman. It's a pity that, because of his eccentric training habits, he didn't ever reach his potential. There's no doubt he could have been the best at that time. It was sort of irritating for a coach. But he was so disarming. He'd come off a two-day whatever he was doing, and he'd be joking and laughing and, in five minutes, you'd be laughing with him. Even though his life was short, it was full. No doubt about that."

Well after his performing career had ended, Bowman revealed he had slipped into heroin addiction. He explained he initially used cocaine to keep his weight down and his energy level up. During his teaching career in Detroit, which began in 1995, he seemed to be getting his life in order and sported a far more substantial figure than his performing days.

In February, 2007, he decided to go back to California to reignite his acting career. He won a role playing an assistant coach in the yet to be released Brian J. De Palma-directed movie, "Down and Distance", which stars Gary Busey.  Since returning to Los Angeles he also had been attempting to reestablish himself as a coach, but apparently was having little success.

Born on March 30, 1967, appropriately enough in Hollywood, CA, to Nelson and Joyce Bowman, he made his showbiz debut early. Many years ago, Joyce explained to this writer that she had worked for one of the movie studios. She often took him into the office and, whenever a baby was needed on a set, production assistants would know immediately where they could "borrow" Christopher to fill that spot.  He was featured in his first commercial at six months.

As he grew, Bowman was in demand for commercials and also appeared in several minor roles in movies and television. His best role was a season in 1992 as Benjamin in the extremely popular television series "Little House on the Prairie."  He also appeared that year in "Archie Bunkerís Place" and later in the zombie movie "Lost Boys."

I first met the obviously talented, very energetic Bowman in the 1983 season, when he was 15 and won both the U.S. and World Junior Championships. Those World Junior Championships were held at the Zetra in Sarajevo, then in Yugoslavia, as a try-out event for the facilities which would hold the Olympic Games the following season. Though Bowman won the figures, the free skate and the title, he fell on his final element, a flying sit spin, in the Short Program. I talked to Carroll shortly after Bowman left the ice after the SP when Carroll was gritting his teeth. "I told him to keep concentrating to the very end," the agonized Carroll declared as Bowman stood by unconcerned with what would become one of his best assets, a perfectly charming smile.

The Free Press also quoted Richard Callaghan, coach of Todd Eldredge, as saying, "Christopher was such a nice person. Even though he was troubled, he was very genuine and friendly. There was a great rivalry between Christopher and Todd because they were so opposite. Christopher was always on. He was the star when it came to doing any competitions. Most of us didnít know how he did it, but he did."

In a widely reported incident in 2004, Bowman was charged with felonious assault and aiming a firearm without malice at his girlfriend, April Freeman, in Lake Orion, MI. Though both those charges were dropped, in 2005 Bowman was sentenced to 18 monthsí probation for a misdemeanor involving having a gun while drunk. He was also ordered by 52nd District Judge Nancy Carniak to perform community service and undergo substance abuse and mental health counseling.  More recently, the 6í Bowman, who weighed 261 pounds at his death, was charged with a misdemeanor theft on November 23, 2007.

Freeman told Joann Barnes of the Free Press, "After the gun incident, he was with me and got into treatment for his bipolar disorder. I know him. I know heís been through a terrible time. I stood by him because I knew he loved me. He is the kindest, most caring and lost person I ever met."

Bowman is survived by his parents Joyce and Nelson, ex-wife Annette Jasinkiewicz, and daughter, Bianca Bowman.  A Memorial Mass will take place for him Thursday, January 17 at St. Cyril's Catholic Church, Encino, CA.

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