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Stumbling to Lake Placid

Linda crashed, Lisa-Marie tumbled, Tai and Randy made mistakes. Still, it all added up to a trip to the Olympics

This was not supposed to be an adventure story. All of the big blades were expected to come out of last week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Atlanta pretty much as handicapped, and then those winners would move as a unit to the Winter Olympics next month. Hi, Linda. Hi, Charlie, and, howdy, Tai and Randy. Nice to see that you all made the traveling squad again and what'll we talk about now? But then some wonderfully goofy things began happening in Atlanta and suddenly this became what skaters will call a memorable meet. Memorable enough to show that we've got our work cut out for us at Lake Placid.

After all, who can forget the sight of the unflappable Linda Fratianne flat on her backside in a most unchampionship-like spill? That one was for all the folks at this end of the Omni's rink. She recovered to come scrambling back—"I was really mad," she said—and then did it again for the folks down at the other end of the ice. Kerplop on her orange-sherbet-colored panties. For those of you who keep score on such things, Linda hasn't taken two spills in a single competition since 1973, when she was 12 years old.

Fratianne wasn't the only skater to suffer an attack of the stumbles and the oh-my-Gods. The condition was epidemic, as if the fact that this meet doubled as an Olympic Trial had grabbed everyone by the throat. The willowy Lisa-Marie Allen, the nation's No. 2 skater and No. 1 blonde, was unusually wobbly in spots, many of the men were unsteady—and even the world champion pair of Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia lumped through what they called "careless mistakes" before they clinched the gold, their fifth national title in a row. All of this came in a competition that was supposed to be more of a coronation.

Which is not to say that the favorites didn't win as expected. Sure, they did. But the thing that left everybody a bit uneasy last week is that most of the winning was done with points instead of performance. It's all in those numbered cards the judges hold up.

For the benefit of those who don't slavishly follow the sport, an upset was possible in the nationals—but not likely. After all, is the U.S. supposed to knock off its established champions in an Olympic year, just when the stakes are highest and its prestige is on the line? Uh uh. The judges didn't exactly vote skaters up or down; the system is a lot more complicated than that. They just voted subjectively, as they always do, which means that some of them may have been staring subjectively at the ceiling while the skating was going on.

Fratianne went blooey in an exercise called the short program, which counts for only 20% of a skater's total score. She had already built a comfortable lead over the field in the compulsories, which count for 30%. In figure skating, you do solid work early so you can afford to stumble later. Because Linda is sensational most of the time—three-time national champion going into the meet and world titleholder in 1977 and 1979—her free-skating exercise for the final 50% of the points was almost a gimme. As things turned out, it was close, but she got it.

Try this absurd situation as an indication of just how close it was: when it was over, despite a spill in her freestyle program, the best woman free-skater in the U.S. was actually Coloradoan Lisa-Marie Allen, 19, who outpointed Fratianne in the last event, but was edged in overall total score, 150.74 to 148.92. Hoo-boy, second place again, folks, third lousy year in a row. But the 5'9" Allen remained stoic and aloof, a leggy beauty thrown in among the little kids. "People say that Linda and I don't get along," she said, Pause. "But, of course, we get along fine." Another pause to examine her burgundy-colored fingernails. "Do they want us to come skating out arm in arm?" The bronze medal and third spot on the Olympic team went to Sandy Lenz, 19, of Rockford, Ill., hereinafter known as Ol' Steady on the squad, since she went the distance on both blades.

But there was a special bonus for the 10,000 or so who were on the scene. Up popped little Elaine Zayak, former junior national and world champion, to do her free exercise and scare the senior women half to death in her initial run at them. Zayak is 14 and doll-like, a dervish from Paramus, N.J. who combs spangles into her blonde hair—"that's gonna be my trademark from now on," she says. While glittering in the light, she performed triples, doubles, twirls, spins and generally flew around the rink, touching down only occasionally to grin at everybody. All of this drove the crowd bananas, although the judges managed to contain themselves, as they had all through the meet. The fact that Zayak didn't win all three medals stirred great outrage among the fans, but, still, fourth place and the Olympic alternate spot ain't bad for the first time out of the box. And, as a sort of sop—or possibly to escape a lynch mob—the U.S. Figure Skating Association ruled that Zayak will replace Lenz as our No. 3 woman at the world championship in Germany this March.

Well, maybe it was the setting. All of this tense stuff took place under the soaring roofs and skylights of the Omni complex, a hulking megastructure where people can live the rest of their lives without ever stepping outdoors. It created a weird effect: by the men's finals Saturday night, everybody—skaters, officials and spectators—had taken on a faintly luminous pallor. There was a sense of having just passed Judge Crater in the hall.

Looking as wan as any of them at 5'10" and 140 pounds was Charlie Tickner of Denver, perhaps America's best-known skater. Tickner, 26, is a three-time U.S. champ and was the world champion in 1978, but he was scrambling his way back to the top at Atlanta after dropping to fourth in the 1979 worlds. As much as anybody, Tickner had the 1980 U.S. title locked, but with good reason. He had come out of the prelims with a solid lead, and he attacks the freestyle with an elegant fury. "Skating my five-minute program is like running a four-minute mile," he says.

Tickner ran them all off the ice Saturday night as promised, and the judges waved a row of six 5.9 cards at him, with only one 5.8, highest scoring of the entire competition. The silver medal went to 20-year-old David Santee of Park Ridge, Ill., and the bronze to Scott Hamilton, 21, a dynamo from Haverford, Pa. And off they all go to the Olympics.

Sure, it was something of a screwy meet, but don't lose heart, not for a minute. Puzzling scoring aside, which is where it should have been last week, the championships produced strong women's, men's and pairs' teams, whose only task now is to settle down. The secret, says Tickner, is that we take all our lumps in public and "event for event, the rest of the world is not as strong as we are."

Well, that's a relief. For a few days there, it seemed to be a case of how the mighty have fallen. And fallen. But now it seems they will rise to skate again.


Fratianne remained upright most of the time.