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Bobek, once a skating star, allegedly key player in drug ring [Updated]

July 6, 2009 |  7:28 pm


Chicagoan Nicole Bobek was one of the most gifted -- and troubled -- U.S. figure skaters of the past 20 years.

Her spiral was so eye-catchingly exquisite that Michelle Kwan emulated it, then refined it into her signature move. But Bobek's life rarely was refined and often seemed to be spiraling downward with behavior that made her a poor man's Tonya Harding.

Monday, a New Jersey prosecutor said Bobek had played a ``significant role'' in a drug ring that was allegedly involved in the distribution of methamphetamine.  According to nj.com, the website of the Jersey Journal newspaper, prosecutor Edward DeFazio said Bobek ``was actively involved in the upper echelon in this thing.''

Until Monday, Bobek's name had not been publicly linked to the case, for which 19 arrests were announced June 20, because she had not been taken into custody, according to the prosecutor.  She was arrested in Florida, where she lists a residence.

Bobek appeared on closed-circuit television from the Hudson County jail in Kearny, N.J., when she was arraigned Monday in a Jersey City court.  She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

When she won her only U.S. figure skating title in 1995, Bobek was on a two-year probation for a felony charge under terms of a Michigan program for young adult offenders.  A judge later dismissed the probation because he felt information leaks had subverted confidentiality terms of the program.

She had been arrested in November, 1994 and charged with first-degree home invasion of the residence of another skater in the suburban Detroit club where Bobek was training.  She entered a conditional plea of guilty on the charge, which was to have been expunged if the probation were completed successfully.

That followed by less than a year the Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair, in which Harding would be stripped of her 1994 U.S. title for her role in the attack on Kerrigan.

A few hours after Bobek won the 1995 championship, Frank Carroll, then Kwan's coach, noted the link.

``I was just thinking,'' Carroll said, ``that we've gone from Tonya Harding to Nicole Bobek.  Oh, my God!''

By 1995, Carroll had been one of Bobek's seven ex-coaches.  Her teenage rebelliousness and indifference to training (like Harding, she smoked cigarettes) drove most of the coaches crazy, but all of them were as crazed by her talent.  Bobek's mother, Jana, and her mother's friend, Joyce, bounced around the country looking for the coach who could harness it, which Richard Callaghan did for one season.

Renee Roca, a U.S. ice dance champion who had choreographed some of Bobek's programs, gave a chillingly accurate analysis in 1995 of the skater's future.

``It is hard to say what will become of Nicole,'' Roca said.

Bobek went on to win a world championships bronze medal in 1995.  Two years later, when she made her last of three appearances at the worlds, Bobek's coach, the legendary Carlo Fassi, died of a heart attack at the competition in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Bobek, whose father deserted the family when she was an infant, had been coached by Fassi and his wife, Christa, at two stages of her career.

``He was always here for me,'' Bobek said the day Fassi died.  ``He always cared.  He took the place of a father for me.''

Bobek organized a Fassi tribute at the California rink where they trained.  Christa Fassi coached Bobek to the 1998 Olympic team, but she flopped all over the ice at the Nagano Olympics and finished 17th.
[Updated 1:15 p.m. July 15: While Bobek skated in the Fassi tribute, she was not involved in organizing it, according to Cindy Lang, publicist at the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, where the event took place.]

One season later, after switching coaches for the 11th time, she was out of competitive skating.

The last time I talked with her, in April 2001, Bobek told me she had begun training pairs with an utterly unremarkable Spanish singles skater.  Nothing came of it.

I had heard virtually nothing about her since.

The first I heard of her was in 1990, when Bobek, at age 12, stood the skating world on its head while winning the U.S. Olympic Festival.  She attracted so much general attention George Steinbrenner began paying some of her training expenses.

Now she needs somebody to post a $200,000 bond.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Nicole Bobek after a fall at the 1998 Olympics. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.