An Olympic Event

What's it like to watch an Olympic figure skating event with gold-medal Olympic champion Brian Boitano? We attended his San Francisco viewing party and found out.

Olympic champion figure skater Brian Boitano
Olympic champion figure skater Brian Boitano

Brian Boitano does not talk while Americans are skating.

The gold-medal-winning Olympic figure-skating champion takes this stuff seriously, as you might imagine. So the other night, even as he played host at an Olympic viewing party at Epic Steak in San Francisco, Boitano stayed very quiet when American skaters took to the ice.

He stood and watched the largest of the television screens, arms crossed, one hand resting on his mouth in concentration. The former Olympian was particularly stoic when men’s figure skater Adam Rippon competed, practically holding his breath during Rippon’s short program. He relaxed and cheered only when the outspoken skater landed each jump and of course, at his big finish.

“As skaters, we can tell when someone takes to the ice how they’re feeling,” Boitano said, adding that he has a sense of when someone’s going to land their jump — or fall.

About 40 people were invited to the steakhouse by the United States Figure Skating Association to watch the games with Boitano and several other former Olympians. Many attendees were clad in red, white and blue, and it was clear there were a lot of die-hard figure skating fans in the group — folks who knew all the twists and the axels, the names of all the current Team USA athletes, the complex rules and the inside-baseball rumors. And as the night’s host, Boitano seemed determined to deliver the goods.

The gold medalist quickly greeted guests and got right to business with the first event of the night, the men’s short program. Along with former Olympic figure skaters Charles Tickner, Emily Hughes, Tim Goebel, Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, Boitano fielded questions from the crowd during event breaks.

One guest asked what it felt like to take the Olympic ice for the first time. Goeble confessed that he didn’t find the Olympics nearly as nerve-wracking as the Finals or the World Championships. “Once you’re in the Olympics, you’ve made the team!” Goeble said, laughing.

For Boitano, it was different. He won his gold medal at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary and the triumph catapulted him to international stardom. At the time, there was a ton of publicity surrounding Boitano and Canadian figure skater Brian Orser. It was called “The Battle of the Brians” — and their finals battle came down to a technical tie-breaker.

“Figure skating is a big deal in Canada,” Boitano said of his intense experience, noting that Canada’s proximity to the United States also added to the whirwind of attention.

30 years ago, skating atop those iconic Olympic rings painted underneath the ice, Boitano felt the pressure of the world’s stage. That pressure continues today. On the big screen, Rippon’s third-place score was lower than many in the crowd anticipated, based on his performance, but Boitano didn’t seem entirely shocked. Figure skating’s incredibly complex scoring system is fickle, and as far as Boitano was concerned, Rippon’s performance was one he should be proud of. Boitano observed that Rippon was so connected to the ice, “his blades were beneath the ice.”

Another viewing highlight was California women’s figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel in an Olympic Games. The triple axel requires a skater to take off facing forward and complete three-and-a-half rotations in air before landing, which Nagasu did to great applause from the crowd. Boitano, who clearly knew that Nagasu was planning to go for it, tossed his head back in relief. (Here’s a video of Boitano doing a perfect one back in his competitive days).

In between skating events and question-and-answer sessions, guests at the watch party enjoyed cuisine by Boitano, who’s now the host of his own televised cooking show. Guests were treated to a Boitano signature cocktail and a Boitano chicken Caprese sandwich topped with Boitano-made tomato jam. Copies of Boitaino’s cookbook were passed out to every guest, many of whom stopped for a selfie with him after Team USA ultimately took home the night’s bronze medal.

Brent Diederich, the USFSA planned giving manager, estimates that it costs around $7,500 for each family member to attend the Olympics. It’s a financial burden that Diederich is determined to reduce, and one of the ways he does so is with parties like the one hosted by Boitano. Each viewing-party guest paid upwards of $500 to attend.

“When you see the families of our athletes in the audience looking nervous,” Diederich told the crowd, his neck draped in red and blue beads, “you did that.”

Back in 1988, there was no organized fundraiser to help families attend the Olympics to cheer on their loved ones. Boitano’s family stayed with a host family in Calgary.

“Now,” Boitano explained, “I know a lot of skaters have started a GoFundMe page.”

Most athletes, it’s clear, want their loved ones in the stands when they go for the gold. When Boitano was asked which members of his family made the trip to Calgary in 1988, he grinned and said, “All of them!”

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Brian Boitano (in hat) watches the 2018 Winter Olympics from Journal of Alta California on Vimeo.

Want more? Meet a San Francisco 21-year-old running for mayor.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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