LILLEHAMMER, Norway — It was over that night, the career, the quest, the dream. He sat in the dressing room, wiping off his skate blades, listening to music inside his Walkman headphones. He was smiling, on the outside, on the inside. He had skated the best program of his life, the ultimate blending of soul and strength, which had ended, appropriately, with his fists clenched and his head thrown back. The crowd had roared like an engine in an echo chamber, and he had glided off, an opera king in his farewell performance, to roses, kisses and a universal cry of “bravo!”

“I did it, I did it,” he said then, stepping off the ice. He was so satisfied, he didn’t even stay to see whether he had won. Twenty minutes later, when his rival, a home-crowd favorite from Canada, bobbled ever-so-slightly, giving the judges the scoring margin they needed, Brian Boitano wasn’t watching. He was getting dressed. He had punched out. His work was done. He had burst through the clouds, broken his own personal sound barrier. What difference did it make if the gold medal came now?

It did come, of course. So did the glory. He was the best in the world. That was six years ago. He quit competing as an amateur, as most Olympic champions do, went pro, hit 30 cities per tour, skating to operas, to rock music, to TV cameras. In other worlds at other times, Brian Boitano gains a few pounds, buys a big house and gets called once every four years to sit in a booth and yak about memories of the gold medal night in Calgary. How’d it feel, Brian, and what can tonight’s competitors expect?

Instead, he is one of tonight’s competitors. He is back. He has dug to China, looked around, and dug all the way back to the ice rink. Once in a lifetime, a man has his moment. That’s a song. But does it hold for Olympic dreams? Glory days

We shall see. If not for the shenanigans of a certain female skater and her band of fools, Brian Boitano would be the biggest story of the Olympics this week. Nobody has done what he is trying to do — it has always been against the rules. Two years ago, at the Albertville Games, Boitano was retired. He wore a media pass around his neck, and I sat with him in the press area of the ice rink, making jokes about the skating world. He wore blue jeans and a CBS jacket, drank coffee and hung around. He was an elder statesman of the sport, and at nights he went out to fine restaurants and slept in a nice hotel.

Now Brian Boitano is staying in a single room at the Olympic village — again. He has gone from skating “Carmen on Ice” for HBO to wearing a USA jacket and studying the judges. Can you imagine this flip-flop of worlds? It’s like going back to high school to quarterback the homecoming game.

Boitano, Katarina Witt, and Torvill and Dean are the Dream Team of figure skating, all back for another sniff of Olympic nectar. But unlike the NBA version, the skaters aren’t in their prime. Boitano will be the oldest entrant in the men’s competition, which starts tonight.

“The reason I am able to do this is simple,” he says. “My professional program was as hard as the amateurs’. I never stopped doing the jumps.

“When I watched the guys skate in 1992, I didn’t think, well, if I really tried, I might keep up with them. I said to myself, ‘On a good night, I can beat them.’ ” Last hurrah

Boitano does bring a pedigree to the show. As a child, he was a skating Mozart, doing wizardlike moves when he was 10. He hit his jumps — all the time. He was the first male to nail a triple axel, and he once was mistakenly penalized at a national championship by a judge who thought he had left out a tough jump — because he had made it look so easy.

But now? Well. Now he seems to ice his knees more often than he knees the ice. His hairline is pulling back, and his body takes a long time to heal. He has to watch what he eats, how much sleep he gets. He finished second, not first, at the nationals in Detroit, and is every bit of 30 years old. He is also smarter.

“The other day, I started to get all nervous about my practice, and then I said, ‘You know what? Look at where you are. Look at how far you’ve come. You’re so lucky to be involved with this again.’ It’s such a kick.”

The old wisdom was that professionals couldn’t appreciate the Olympics. Boitano is the exception. He likes living in the village, likes concentrating on one program, making it perfect. And even though he has recently changed his routine — which is like changing your offense just before the Super Bowl
— he relishes the chance to show it off. One shot. The whole world watching. After this, he admits, “I don’t know if I could go back to pro skating.”

Some American skaters resent Boitano’s presence. They are jealous. They are wrong. There is nothing improper about excellence, at any age. He qualified. He is worthy. And he carries one burden his younger rivals do not: the obsessive wonder if what they say is true — that inside all ex-champions lives one more great performance.

Brian Boitano can feel the old one stirring. He takes the ice tonight in search of himself, to clench the fists, to throw the head back, to hear, one more time, the echoes of an endless bravo.

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