Surya Bonaly doesn’t love the cold.
The famed figure skater warms her cupped hands around her latté and counts the many layers she’s wearing, even inside a Caribou Coffee shop.
But she does love her fiancé, Peter Biver, a Wisconsin native who coaches skating in the Twin Cities, a long way from Las Vegas, where the petite French dynamo and the lanky Midwesterner hit it off three years ago at a convention.
That’s why a superstar athlete who has skated all over the world wound up living in St. Louis Park.
At first, the couple tried having a long-distance relationship.
“I’d tell my agent, ‘Change my layover to Minneapolis so I can see Peter,’ ” she said, and they’d spend a few precious hours together at MSP. But that got old, and they both agreed it was time for a change.
“My motto for many years was the guy is supposed to move for love, if he loves,” Bonaly said.
But Sin City is no skating mecca, and it would have been very difficult for Biver to reboot his career there. It made more sense for Bonaly to relocate to the land of 10,000 ice rinks, where winter sports are a “part of everybody’s life,” she said.
So 16 months ago, she came for a three-week visit — and decided to stay, and build a life as a skating coach, working with Biver.
Biver, who’s more than a foot taller than Bonaly, does the heavy lifting, hoisting skaters in a harness while teaching them jumps. Bonaly describes herself as a “complete coach,” who focuses on all aspects of figure skating. “I’m kind of like a chef, with a special recipe,” she said.
Since she’s been here, she’s getting acclimated to Minnesota mores and weather. “I like the four seasons. Fall is beautiful here,” she said.
Winter, not so much. “Freeze your butt for love,” she grumbled with a wry grin.
In the 1990s, Bonaly, now 43, was at the pinnacle of her sport, competing in the Olympics, winning World medals and making audiences gasp with her signature move, a back flip landed on one blade.
She remains one of only a handful of skaters to have mastered a back flip on ice. (The others, all men, landed on both feet.) “I’m the only lady in the world who can do it,” she said matter-of-factly.
But as she coaches young skaters at rinks around the Twin Cities, it’s their parents who remember Bonaly’s bold feats on ice.
“She was before my time,” said Lacey Jensen, 21, of Minneapolis, who takes lessons with Bonaly and Biver at Parade Ice Garden.
It wasn’t until Jensen watched Bonaly’s videos on YouTube that she fully understood who her coach was and what she’d been able to accomplish.
“It’s so cool!” Jensen said. “When you go to competitions with her, when people find out, they ask her, ‘Can I get your autograph?’ ”
Ironically, having a famous name can also be a handicap when you’re trying to assimilate into the tight-knit skating community.
“People are jealous of me,” Bonaly said, with some coaches wary that she’ll use her fame to poach their students. “I have no intention of stealing people,” she said. “I come here, No. 1 for love, to be with my companion. No. 2, I do love skating. I’m not an evil person just because I have a name.”
Bonaly’s outspoken style sets her apart among mild-mannered Minnesotans, Biver noted.
“She’s French. When that culture meets Minnesota Nice, there’s a chemical reaction. She’s very polite but people are not used to someone being direct. People are taken aback. It can feel in-your-face.”
And it’s true that Bonaly doesn’t mince words when coaching. “I’m strict, but not super hard,” she said. “I want skaters who are into it, who want it.” They don’t have to be athletically gifted but willing to listen and work. “I’m here to give 100 percent of what I know.”
Sometimes that means executing a jump herself. Not to show off, she said. “When you can’t explain anymore, showing helps.”
Bonaly’s coaching style and strong technique have impressed coach Page Lipe, director of SportQuest Skating Academy at Parade Ice Garden. “She’s still a great skater,” said Lipe. “She still does amazing double jumps. Her strength as a coach is her passion and her energy. Energy just comes off of her in waves. You can see kids absorbing it.”
She’s also “really funny,” Lipe said. Perhaps because English isn’t her first language, Bonaly often relies on action to demonstrate what skaters are doing wrong, sometimes in exaggerated slapstick fashion. “It makes her skaters laugh and make the correction.”
‘I don’t want to be crippled’
Bonaly no longer does back flips. Her last one was in Brazil two years ago when she was a guest star with a touring ice show.
After that, she had back surgery, and her surgeon advised her to retire her trick. “I don’t want to be crippled,” she said.
Aside from teaching, she doesn’t even skate much anymore.
“Since my back injury, I can’t do much. The next day I’m in pain,” she said.
There’s not much time for recreational skating anyway. The life of a coach is a demanding one, with long days — early-morning lessons before school, a few midday lessons, more lessons from early afternoon into mid-evening.
“We eat dinner at 8, 9, sometimes 10,” Bonaly said. “We talk skating 20 hours a day.” She coaches six days a week; Biver usually coaches seven. “Peter works Sundays. He goes two months without a day off. I don’t do Sundays. It’s not healthy. You need a day off.”
She still has the intensity and drive of the champion she was, but she also misses the “quality of life” in Europe, where “people take time to cook, to enjoy time with family,” she said. “When life is all about work, you feel like a machine. You empty your soul.”
Over Thanksgiving, the couple took their first vacation together in two years, traveling to France to spend time with Bonaly’s father and old friends. Last year, she went home for Christmas, but Biver stayed behind to coach their students. “When one is gone, the other one has to be here,” he said.
Asked to describe Bonaly, both Biver and Lipe chose the same word: passionate.
“Initially, people are intimidated by her, but on the inside, she’s very warm and caring,” said Biver. (She’s also a romantic, who likes to start and end each day with a kiss.)
Bonaly’s sturdy backbone and fierce independent streak were also hallmarks of her competitive career.
Back flips aren’t allowed in competition, but Bonaly did one anyway, at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, a move that some considered a poke at the figure skating establishment.
“I knew it was my last Olympics,” she said. She was skating with an injury, out of medal contention (she finished 10th), and decided to give the audience what it wanted to see. “It’s called free skating,” she said. “You should be able to do what you want.”
Earlier she made waves at the 1994 World competition when she won a silver medal, finishing second, despite a technically more difficult program packed with triple and combination jumps. Bonaly removed her medal, and refused to take the podium, in silent protest.
That was the story of Bonaly’s career at the World and Olympic level — always finishing behind someone the judges deemed more “artistic.”
“I haven’t been lucky,” she said simply.
Her athletic approach to skating was ahead of its time, in Biver’s view. The old scoring system in place during her competitive career was more arbitrary than the current one, which awards points for elements completed.
“She was always fighting to be given credit for the difficulty of what she was doing,” he said. “She was from a very small country [for figure skating] and she never played the political game. She let her skating speak for itself.”
But despite that, she isn’t bitter, he said. “She still loves the sport. She has that fire. That’s what I love about her. She’s full of life. It keeps oozing out of her.”