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Tiny Midori Ito of Japan leaped to the top at the world figure skating finals

Just before the world figure Skating Championships in Paris last week, U.S. champion Jill Trenary leaned against the gleaming white rail around the practice rink and talked about her role as favorite to win the ladies' title. "I love the spotlight," she said. "I think I look good out there. I'm strong, powerful and artistic. But I have my doubts as much as anyone. And there are so many more things to life than skating—I hope."

It was almost as if Trenary, 20, the supposed heir apparent to former world and Olympic champion Katarina Witt of East Germany, sensed that her elegant style was about to be eclipsed by skaters with less grace but with the ability to leap over the Arc de Triomphe.

As it turned out, Trenary's worst fears were confirmed when Midori Ito, Japan's 4'9", 97-pound jumping jack, put on a bold and brilliant performance to win the world title and take her place squarely, and perhaps enduringly, at the center of the figure skating stage. Ito, 19, who had stolen hearts at the Calgary Olympics when she jumped and pranced and blushed her way to a fifth-place finish (Trenary was fourth, behind the champion, Witt, Elizabeth Manley of Canada and Debi Thomas of the U.S.), took her sport to a new level in Paris. With the International Skating Union's decision to eliminate compulsory figures after the 1990 world championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia, athleticism is now the rage. And Ito is an extraordinary athlete.

As for Trenary, who had been in second place after the compulsory program, and first overall after Friday's original program, she appeared to be running on empty in the decisive long program Saturday afternoon. It couldn't have helped that she skated immediately after Ito's triumphant appearance. Ultimately she was given third place behind Claudia Leistner of West Germany—and given is the right word. It might have been an omen that she fell while warming up. She had planned to do five triple jumps but in fact did only two, and blew a routine double Axel. "I just wanted to skate well," Trenary said later, whereupon she began to cry.

U.S. team leader Harland Burge called Ito's three-minute, 59-second program Saturday "the finest athletic performance" by a woman skater he had ever seen. Because of the program's extreme difficulty, Burge ranked it ahead of Thomas's 1987 show-stopper at the world championships in Cincinnati. Said Ito, who had finished no better than sixth in four previous worlds, "I wanted to do my best and do and do."

As Saturday's skating began, Ito was in third place, behind Trenary and Leistner, but she made a preemptive strike at the top of her long program. With only one minute gone, she performed a triple Axel—the first time a woman has ever landed one in the world championships. It's a 3½-turn jump, begun while skating forward. Since the jump requires extreme upper-body strength, most women can't do it.

Ito, in effect, locked up the title with her triple Axel landing. She lost the outside edge of her right skate for an instant and nearly went sprawling, but she recovered, smiled a big smile, skated to the other end of the rink and pulled off a glorious drop-dead triple flip. The rest of the program was dynamite, too.

"I didn't watch her skate but I couldn't help but hear the cheers." said Trenary. Of the 18 marks the nine judges awarded Ito for technical merit and artistic impression, five were perfect 6.0's and six were 5.9's. If anything, she deserved better.

Ito's skating has improved dramatically since the 1988 Calgary Games because she has made great strides in her artistic performance. The Japanese team's coleader, Junko Hiramatsu, says, "She is a little girl who jumps like a big girl. However, her artistic impression had not been good at all. But she worked so hard, and it paid."

Ito, Japan's first figure skating gold medalist, was born and raised in Nagoya, a city of 2.1 million, where she has lived with her coach, Machiko Yamada. since age 10. Having trained since age five, she made her debut in international skating at 14, finishing third in the 1984 world juniors in Sapporo. When not competing, she attends Tokai Gakuen Women's College in Nagoya.

Ito's victory is a breakthrough in skating not only because of her amazing ability but also because she lacks the glamour of a Witt or a Trenary. As small as Ito is, she looks chunky. Now that she rules the sport, her appearance in itself may help turn figure skating away from its preoccupation with looks, clothes, music and sequins, and toward more athleticism. Still, Ito can't help remarking, "I envy American and European girls because they are so tall."

Worse news for Trenary and for Ito's other challengers is the move away from compulsory figures. At Paris, they counted for only 20% of a skater's overall score; in previous years they were worth 30%. The compulsories were the only weak part of Ito's performance, and she finished sixth in them on Thursday. For Trenary, the compulsories have often been a strength; she was second behind Leistner.

Ito's brilliant week coupled with Trenary's own lackluster showing could push the American out of figure skating long before the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. Trenary said she now will have to decide "what will make Jill happy."

Before the worlds, Trenary's father, Bob, said either a winning performance (which presumably would attract big money from the ice shows) or a poor showing might prompt his daughter's retirement from amateur competition. "One's role as a parent," he said, "is to be able to tell your child that they don't have it anymore, that it's time to cut and run. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't allow Jill to follow this course in her life. She has missed growing up."

The world championships weren't much more encouraging for the U.S. men's champion, Chris Bowman of Los Angeles, who came to town expecting to win and ended up finishing second to Canada's Kurt Browning. Bowman, 21, has a reputation for not practicing enough; afterward, he reluctantly admitted that he will have to work much more diligently.

Like Trenary, Bowman had to follow the eventual winner in the final free skate. And. like Ito, the 22-year-old Browning slammed the door shut by successfully completing a monster jump, in this case a quad (four revolutions). If Bowman can focus his huge talent, he and Browning could have several interesting confrontations in the future.

Four years ago Ito broke her leg attempting a quad, which most observers have considered impossible for a woman to complete. But this is a skater who does the impossible. Seeing her up on the victory stand, bowing, shedding a tear, reinforced the notion that nobody will be confronting Midori Ito for a while.



Leistner (left) and Trenary couldn't match Ito's heights.



Spectacular jumps, including a triple Axel, set Ito apart.



Browning of Canada iced the men's title when he pulled off a rare quadruple jump.