Nicole Bobek: Falling through ice
The trials, tribulations and allegedly felonious behavior of a former figure skating star
JUPITER, Fla. -- On an overcast late-July afternoon in a Jupiter strip mall, the Belle Maison shop is quiet, the stillness interrupted only by a bell that chimes when the occasional customer opens the door. The quaint store is filled with scented soaps and enough tchotchkes to keep any grandmother content. These days, this is where Nicole Bobek spends most of her time, working at the store owned by her mother but funded mostly by the earnings from Bobek's figure skating career.
On a reporter's recent visit, one of the door chimes signals Bobek's arrival for her shift.
Under other circumstances, this strip mall styled as a country inn might be a comfortable place to hide, or at least to fade away. But in Belle Maison, Bobek is anything but incognito.
"People know who I am," she says. "There are pictures of me all over the store!"
Bobek seems to take little joy in being recognized right now. It's been almost three years since she skated professionally and more than 11 years since her sad 17th-place finish at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, but her face and her name are back in the public eye this summer for a very wrong reason. In June, New Jersey authorities arrested her and 19 others as part of a raid on an alleged methamphetamine ring and charged her with conspiracy to distribute over five ounces of the drug. Prosecutors describe Bobek's involvement as "high-level."
She faces the possibility of 10 years in prison.
Thirteen years ago, Bobek outskated Michelle Kwan to win the 1995 U.S Figure Skating Championships and became the country's next Winter Olympic sweetheart. Later that year, she stood on a Birmingham, England, podium with China's Chen Lu and France's Surya Bonaly as the bronze medalist at the World Championships. She was a Barbie doll with blonde hair and big blue eyes who coupled athleticism with ingenuity, choreographing her own routines and often improvising during performances. She was a master at playing to crowds who were wowed by her beauty and grace and a flexibility that seemed to ease her effortlessly into a trademark spiral move, her leg held straight up to her ear.
Who could have imagined, back then, Nicole Bobek alleged to be part of a distribution ring that, according to authorities, was moving $10,000 worth of methamphetamine a week?
"It's sad, it really is," says Hudson County prosecutor Edward DeFazio. "It happens every single day to people you wouldn't think."
Only 10 minutes from the Holland Tunnel and about a 20-minute ride from Bobek's Manhattan apartment is the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, N.J., where Bobek was held until posting bail. On a Monday morning in mid-July, deputies are abuzz because the local paper, the Jersey Journal, has just published an article featuring comments from a few inmates there. One of them was quoted as saying Bobek had referred to the facility as a four-star hotel compared to the jail in Florida's Palm Beach County, where she was held after her arrest at her mother's house June 25 until her extradition to New Jersey over the Fourth of July weekend.
One of the inmates who spent some time with Bobek in the dorm-style Hudson County jail is Beverlyn Sierra, 24, who until recently worked for an insurance company. Sierra, arrested on the same meth distribution charge as Bobek, is the girlfriend of Eddie Cruz, who has been charged as the drug operation's ringleader. She's been dating Cruz for the past seven months, and lived with him in an apartment in Belleville, N.J., until their arrest. Among other things during a 90-minute jailhouse interview with ESPN.com, Sierra says she's only in jail because of guilt by association but has used meth on occasion to help her study for insurance tests at work.
"I was surrounded by people that [dealt drugs]," she says. "You know what's sad? People that were doing it, they are out there. They are out there, living the life. What was I doing? I was working; I was being a good girl. I can't wait to get my court date. I want to fight it."
Sierra's bail was set at $200,000 when she was arrested in mid-June. As of this week, she hadn't made it and was still incarcerated.
Bobek posted her bail, reduced from $200,000 to $100,000, and was released July 6.
While Sierra proclaims her own innocence in the meth operation, she acknowledges both its existence and Bobek's involvement. She says Bobek distributed the drug out of her Chelsea apartment in Manhattan along with three other people.
"Her house was being used; her apartment was being used," Sierra says. "People would go over there and pick up [the drugs] and leave. So she was pretty much distributing."
Asked in Florida about Sierra's allegation, Bobek says, "Legally, I can't answer that question."
Sierra is still laughing about that a week or so later. She's 24 but giggles as if she's 14 with a crush on a boy. She says Bobek ran exercise classes for the women in the jail, performed cartwheels with Sierra and made drawings with the colored pencils Sierra was using for makeup in lieu of eyeliner. She says Bobek told her how much Cruz loved her. She says Bobek even made a tube top for her in jail and inscribed it with "Ed ♥ Bev," which got front-page play in the local paper.
But Sierra says she saw another side, too. At times, Bobek became upset and nervous, and expressed fears that her mother wasn't going to bail her out. When the two of them were relaxing in the jailhouse recreation yard, the sun beaming down, Sierra says Bobek cried.
In Bobek's jailhouse mug shot, her hair is short and dark, and her face appears pockmarked. It was a stunning image for at least one of her friends who knew her as the blonde Barbie with a perfect complexion.
"It was terrible," says Johnny Weir, the bronze medalist in men's singles at the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships. "It was so devastating because I always have and always will think of Nicole in such a bright light and as such a beautiful person. It was a shock. The spirit was out of her eyes. It didn't look like Nicole Bobek. To me, it looked like a stranger."
Bobek was born in Chicago in 1977. Her mother, Jana, a Czechoslovakian figure skater and model, raised her without Nicole's father. By age 3, Nicole had begun skating; by 9, she and her mother had moved to California to train with different coaches. And by age 13, Nicole had been endorsed by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who reportedly wrote her a $15,000 check after he watched her skate. She was newly a teenager, had trained in Italy and was already aspiring to compete in the Olympics.
The Chicago Tribune published a story in 1990 calling Bobek, then just a seventh-grader, "U.S. figure skating's newest darling." That article dealt in part with the difficulties of being raised without a father figure in a high-cost sport. Her mother worked as an ice cream vendor, and they relied on outside support to defray her skating expenses. A local dressmaker donated Bobek's skating outfits; Steinbrenner's goodwill helped finance her training.
Over the next several years, Bobek worked with eight different coaches in almost as many different cities. It left her with little stability, and with the responsibility of being the family's main breadwinner after figure skating's restrictions on income for amateurs were lifted in the mid-90s. Bobek, as many young skaters must do, navigated her ascent in the sport while going through puberty with no core set of friends or a true home base.
In 1993, according to a People magazine profile that appeared in 1995, she briefly ran away from home, reportedly when she discovered that Joyce Barron -- whom Bobek had been told was her aunt -- was instead her mother's live-in friend, and that her father and mother had never married.
Also that year, child welfare authorities received calls on two occasions from people alleging that Barron and Jana Bobek were mistreating Nicole, and one of those calls came from Barron's own daughter. The complaints eventually were dropped because of insufficient evidence.
"I get a lot of criticism," Jana Bobek told People. "I hear that either I'm neglecting or overpowering. But every child is an individual, and I go by my instincts and try to do my best as a parent."
A year later, Bobek was arrested for home invasion when she used a security code to enter a friend's home in Michigan. She was given probation in that case, but her juvenile record was later leaked to the media and the incident found a place in nearly every profile written of her.
Still, back on the ice, she won the '95 U.S. Championship, succeeding 1994 winner Tonya Harding. The victory was the highlight of her career, and it made her a celebrity. Her manager at the time, Steve Disson, says at the height of her fame, Bobek -- nicknamed "Brass Knuckles" because she wore rings on each finger -- had about a half-dozen endorsements and was earning around $300,000 a year.
"She was very marketable," sayd Disson, who last saw Bobek in 2006. "She had all the talent in the world U.S. Figure skating had asked to help me out to kind of protect her and give her some direction. I helped her get endorsements and get work, and, I would say, help cleaned up her act. She was a rebellious, young kid with no supervision."
Renowned skating coach Carlo Fassi, one of her mentors and her closest father figure, died suddenly a day before Bobek skated her short program at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, and she finished out of the medals. She qualified for her only Olympics the following winter, but several falls left her far back in 17th place in Nagano.
When she turned pro in 2000, she was in her early 20s, rich and, by most accounts, without direction. As one former associate, who asked not to be identified, put it, "It seemed she was spending more time with members of the opposite sex than she was on the ice."
By 2004, Bobek was working on the Champions on Ice tour, an outfit run by promoter Tom Collins in which professional skaters perform around the country. She was taking in a nice paycheck, likely in the low six figures.
"She was an extremely talented young lady," Collins says. "She was a striking performer; she got your attention."
Bobek lived in a small studio apartment in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, a lively area where there is no shortage of clubs and bars. The Chelsea Piers skating rink is just a few blocks away, with New York's nightlife waiting right outside her doorstep.
"What fantastic, wonderful girl doesn't want to live in New York City at some point in her life?" says Weir, who is currently training for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
Weir and Bobek became friends while touring with Champions on Ice in 2004. Weir says his favorite memories of Bobek involve talking all night in her hotel room after a show, while she took a bubble bath and ate grapes and cheese. He says when she moved to Manhattan she decorated her apartment with "Hello Kitty" keepsakes.
"She loved to dance," Weir says. "I heard she was out partying a lot, out dancing at the clubs a lot New York City is a lovely, wonderful place, but there is also a dark underbelly you can get caught up in.
"Nicole was in some ways secretive and was closed off from people. If she had a problem, she wouldn't be one to throw it out in front of everybody."
Weir told ESPN.com that he'd heard rumors about drugs, but never saw her use them, even when they were out together at clubs in the city.
"She could have been one of the greatest skaters the United States has ever seen," says Kerry Leitch, who coached Bobek in 2000. "But her work ethic was horrible. There are two sides to Nicole. There is the side that is sweet and nice and is a great skater. And then there is the side that is a mystery. You never knew why she did strange things."
Some of her former skating coaches and associates who spoke with ESPN.com remember this about Bobek: the way she smelled. She was beautiful on the ice, they say, but her smoking habit away from it was jarring.
"She was not the best person to be in training," says the former associate, who mentions her numerous cigarette breaks during practice sessions. "Every time she got off the ice, she was smoking."
Leitch says Bobek sometimes failed to show up for their practice sessions, and that her mother would beg Leitch to drag her daughter to the rink with the promise that there would be more money in it for him if he did. Leitch, a veteran coach from Canada, refused, saying he wouldn't "be bought."
"She was a very easily led young lady," Leitch adds. "Any time Nicole did anything wrong, her mother always justified it. That's the story of Nicole's life. In her mother's mind, she's never done anything wrong."
He says Jana and Joyce Barron spoiled Bobek "immensely." In her store in Jupiter, Jana Bobek declines to comment on any details of her life with her daughter, or the charges against her.
Leitch and Disson say Barron, who passed away in 2006 after complications from surgery, handled the business of Bobek's skating, and her death created at least a temporary vacuum in Bobek's financial support network. Friends say perhaps it is no coincidence that around that time, Bobek disappeared from the skating world. One of her last performances on the ice was a small role as a seductive skater in the 2006 movie remake of "All the King's Men," starring Sean Penn.
As far as the skating world is concerned, the past few years of Bobek's life have been lived in the shadows. She's been in touch with virtually no one involved with figure skating, apparently. She worked odd jobs such as walking other people's dogs, and started school to become a music producer.
The original plan was to study fashion at The New School in Manhattan, she says in Belle Maison, but it was too costly, so she found her way to Night Owl Studios.
Sierra says Bobek's connection to Cruz, the alleged leader of the meth distribution ring, was through Bobek's roommate, who worked with Cruz's ex-girlfriend. The investigation has been ongoing for over a year, but Bobek only showed up on law enforcement's radar a few months ago.
Now, a little more than a month after her arrest, Bobek is back in Florida. When she arrives on the late-July afternoon at Belle Maison -- French for "beautiful home" -- her hair is back to blonde and she looks tan and fit wearing a summer dress. Her face is covered with foundation, but it doesn't hide the pockmarks the world saw in her mug shot.
She says she can't talk about her legal situation, but she is friendly and warm. It's easy to see why people gravitate toward her. In spite of her problems, past and present, many who know her regard her as a kind soul.
She is still something of a public figure in Jupiter, so simple tasks such as going to the grocery store can make life uncomfortable these days. She tells ESPN.com she wants very much to get her side of the story out, but her lawyer has instructed her and her mother not to speak with the media. They can't afford to lose this lawyer. Bobek says she'll talk to him tonight and ask if he'll approve an interview, and she'll call with the update as soon as possible.
As promised, she calls the reporter that evening. She explains that her lawyer has told her she can absolutely not grant the interview, for the sake of her own future. She politely answers a legal question.
Then, just before she hangs up, she says, "I'm sorry you didn't get great weather while you were down here."
It will likely be at least another month before prosecutors take her case to a grand jury which will decide whether to indict her on the drug charges. For now, she is at home with her mother, the two of them together.
Just the way it began.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. You can reach her at email@example.com or at twitter.com/amyknelson.