When Tonya and her thugs whacked Nancy Kerrigan, the world was introduced to the countless characters in figure skating. More importantly, snarky journalists like Christine Brennan had a field day familiarizing us with them. Who did their find? A girl named Surya Bonaly quickly became their 'exotic' favorite topic of discussion.
Surya, we were told, was born on the island of Reunion off the coast of Africa. The narrative says that she was discovered by Suzanne Bonaly as an infant in a basket under the bridge like one of the Aristocats. Going along with the fantastical elements, Suzanne Bonaly, her adoptive mother and often her coach, looked like The Wicked Witch (ugly wart on her nose, stringy hair and all.) Who was the coach who originally brought her to stardom? None other than the always controversial and smarmy Didier Gailhaguet! Didier told us that she existed solely on a diet of seeds and had never had a haircut. Of course, like everything involved with the French Skating Federation, it was a bold faced lie.
Surya was born in Nice. Her style wasn't 'exotic; it was rather hideous. Her packaging was possibly worse. British judge Vanessa Riley said that Surya's outfit for compulsory figures made her look like a 'court jester' at the 1989 Europeans.
The North American commentators, likely fearing being called racist, were surprisingly muted with their criticism given how self-important each can be. Each one continually developed euphemisms to describe just how bad her skating, technique and style actually were. "A style all her own, " "she continually changes her program," "exotic." Dick Button, a notorious crotchety uptight bitch in the most fantastic of ways, always acted surprised in a manner of "well, I've never seen technique like that before." Only after she'd miss would he go into why it was incorrect.
Despite the animosity from the judges and the rabid criticism from anyone with eyes or taste, Surya remained wildly popular around the world. Most of all, she was one of the most popular skaters in the US. Surya was invited to compete at Skate America every year and made millions touring with Champions On Ice. Surya's rise corresponded with Cirque du Soleil coming into prominence. Both were very bizarre, very French and could be considered legalized acid trips for haughty sophisticates. Like any good train wreck, you simply couldn't keep your eyes of Surya. She even made sure of it by intimidating fan favorite Midori Ito by cutting her off with her back flip during a practice session at the 1992 Olympics. Even Katarina Witt, a notorious bitch during practice sessions, was aghast by the action.
It isn't as though Surya failed to ever win a competition. Surya is a five-time European Champion, which is obviously a testament to the storied history of the continent's ''stellar'' ladies skaters.
While she was a tumbler for a time, it always remained a question just what sport Surya was attempting to do on the ice. Her short, choppy crossovers, squaring off, wild underrotations and failure to use any edges was something never seen before in the conservative world of figure skating.
A Surya Bonaly program was always a revelation. It involved non-melodic screechy music, bare legs, excessive arm waving and a tacky bright costume that barely covered her ass. One could always count on their ears being just as offended as their eyes, even during exhibitions. My favorite Surya moment comes during the tempo change in her Four Seasons program. Surya squats down, looks lost, throws her arms up and then pushes herself with her toe pick down the ice. It is pretty much the extent of her skating ability. Frankly, I can only imagine her marks under the International Judging System.
The best part about Surya was that she and her mother felt that her skating was brilliant, listened to no one and frequently complained that she "was robbed." It became wildly entertaining. Surya would perform some atrocity with millions of questionable quads and triples, then skate off as though she'd won. Like clockwork, the judges would pounce and Surya acted scorned in the most dramatic and French of ways. The British judges are notoriously independent and unimpressed. Vanessa Riley enjoyed ripping Surya a new one after each and every performance. Ms. Riley even marked Surya at 4.7/4.7 at the 1992 World Championships.
Didier Gailhaguet complained loudly that Surya was incorrectly marked down during the short program at the 1994 Olympic Games because Oksana Baiul two-footed her triple lutz during Swan Lake. Because Oksana and Surya were clearly on the same level...
The Bonalys went to Frank Carroll one summer to improve her skating. Frank wanted to work on things like edges, stroking and stretch. Suzanne would have nothing of it. The woman who knew best bought Surya a new pair of boots every month to drill her infamous jumps. For those looking to skate like Surya, Suzanne still coaches in Las Vegas.
Even Surya's landings were an art form all their own. Her jumps rotated with little height or distance and the landings had less flow than Irina Slutskaya's. The more cheated the jump, the more Surya would stick her ass out and throw her free leg and arms up in triumph. Aside from her Bielmann, each of her spins revealed a position and lack of extension that had never been seen before. Surya's skating was so "exotic" that the judges were able to note her "improvement" each and every year. When you start as low as Surya, improvement is relative and judged with low standards. She may be one of the only skaters I'd ever send to Mary Scotvold for choreography due to her utter need to hold an edge and be sexy.
The apex of Surya's career occurred at the 1994 World Championships. While Post-Olympic World Championships are largely ignored by the mainstream media, the press salivated over all things skating that winter and were game for anything. Surya didn't fail to deliver. So upset by another "controversial" loss to Yuka Sato, Surya refused to stand on the rostrum, then was forced on and promptly ripped off her medal. It was rude. It was dramatic. It was fabulous.
Despite numerous offers to turn professional, the French Skating Federation ensured that Surya continued in the amateur ranks. Some people just don't get the memo. Only Surya could lose a World Championship to a skater who completed no jump combinations.
After another second place finish at the 1995 World Championships, Surya's performances lacked her usual spark. Years of pounding practices took their toll and Surya soon suffered a torn achilles.
It was amazing that Surya even bothered to get new programs every year. Frankly, it was all the same shit. It wasn't just bad, it was spectacularly bad. Yet, when Surya made the decision to come back from her torn achilles and go for a third Olympics, she dusted off her infamous "Four Seasons" program as though it were her own personal Rachmaninoff masterpiece. After feeling cheated by the judges yet again, Surya was fit to be tied in her final amateur performance. Struggling with her triple lutz all year, there was a sense that Surya would be sure to go out with a bang. And she did. Surya gave a final "fuck you" to the judges by performing her very illegal layout backflip and ending her program with her back facing the judges.
Surya's long-awaited pro career was sadly uneventful. While she'd wow the crowds with layout backflip+triple salchow combinations and occasionally leave before her marks were announced, things just weren't the same. The judges even relented and let her win a few competitions.