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Riding Shotgun With Superstars: Arena-Rock Skating with Brian Boitano

Andrew Dalton | December 9, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Part One: Brian Boitano
Part Two: Heklina
Part Three: Michael Mina
Part Four: Jane Kim

Twenty-six years after winning a gold medal in Calgary, Brian Boitano still skates four times a week in SoMa, and when he does, he drives himself to the rink. At 9:15 a.m., when we step into the white luxury SUV parked in the garage of his Italianate villa in Russian Hill, its sunroof is already open. Boitano has been up since 7:30, taking in the golden, late-September sunlight streaming through his breakfast nook, answering emails, and tending to the sort of business that comes with being Brian Boitano: 51-year-old figure skating legend, Food Network star, and South Park song.

Boitano takes the scenic route over Nob Hill to the rink: behind Grace Cathedral, down the steep block on Jones, through the zigzag that passes Hallidie Plaza. It’s not the way Google Maps would recommend, but it’s more fun, offering the scenic vistas that appeal to committed San Francisco drivers and people who enjoy car commercials. After pulling into a SoMa parking garage, we jaywalk across four lanes of Folsom Street in the middle of a long block and take an elevator up to the rink.

On Fridays, Boitano has the ice to himself for an hour; Mondays through Wednesdays, it’s an hour and 45 minutes. The good people of Yerba Buena Skating and Bowling Center don’t charge him for the time—he repays them by attracting publicity (you’re welcome) and performing in charity skating events. Aside from the janitorial staff and the guy at the front desk (who also happens to be the Zamboni driver), Boitano and I are the only ones in the rink. “One time,” he says, “Steven Spielberg came in with a group of film students, and [the rink staff] were like, ‘Sorry, you can’t come in—Brian’s skating.’”

In the referee’s box, Boitano plugs a cable into his phone and warms up the ice with a dad-rock soundtrack, all grungy guitars and piano ballads. He’s practicing for a few shows in which he’ll be skating to live music by bands like Foreigner and Bad Company—groups that peaked early but have managed to maintain a modest, if dwindling, fan base for decades. It’s stuff that plays well in places like San Jose, Jacksonville, and Las Vegas—Boitano’s only U.S. appearances this year. He’ll also be doing a run of 14 nights in CancĂșn, stretching from before Christmas until after the New Year. His upcoming ABC special, Unforgettable Moments of Love on Ice, will air next February.

As grating as its soundtrack may be, Boitano’s workout is surprisingly elegant. He loops and axels through five or six routines that are in various stages of development, pausing occasionally to back up and try certain sections again. By the time that hockey players start shuffling in for their weekly pickup game, Boitano is sweating heavily and looking like he just skated a full three periods himself.

Afterward, crossing another construction-addled SoMa street in pursuit of coffee, Boitano waxes nostalgic about skating’s pop culture heyday in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Back then, he and a cast of his fellow figure skaters went on national tours put on by Bill Graham Presents. “We sold out stadiums across the country,” he says, recalling the days when a busload of former Olympians and also-rans could fill all 40,000 seats in the Superdome. “It was rock ’n’ roll.” These days, though, it’s not so easy: His recent show with fellow Olympic medalists Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan in San Jose attracted around 5,000 attendees.

Nevertheless, a celebrity’s a celebrity, and Boitano still possesses a modicum of notoriety. After driving through SoMa for lunch at his health club, he bristles noticeably when a jocular gym member loudly announces to everyone in the club cafĂ© that a world-champion figure skater is in their midst. Most of the customers don’t even look up from their sandwiches and laptops, and Boitano tries to laugh it off, but his usually impeccable cooking-show-host posture is drooping a little. He hates it when people make a show over him.

Leaving the club, Boitano turns a corner into a parking garage. The attendants greet him with welcoming smiles. “Thanks, Mr. B.,” one says as he hands over the car keys. Boitano’s SUV is waiting near the front.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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