Publish date:

Ice Queens

Kristi Yamaguchi led a U.S. sweep at the world figure skating championships

That Shriek? The one that reverberated through Munich's Olympiahalle last Saturday afternoon? Could it really have come from the new world ladies' figure skating champion, Kristi Yamaguchi of Fremont, Calif., upon receiving her first-ever perfect 6.0 mark for artistic impression? Naaah. Couldn't have been quiet Kristi.

That fearsome wail must surely have emanated from some other source. Perhaps from U.S. Figure Skating Association vice-president Claire Ferguson, when it suddenly became clear that Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan had given the Americans a clean sweep of the gold, silver and bronze medals, the first time one nation had gone 1-2-3 in a women's world championship. Or maybe it was a shriek of pain as some unthinking wretch poked Japan's Midori Ito in the ribs to ask if she would mind posing over there by the boards for a snapshot. Or could it have been an anguished yelp from France's Surya Bonaly, upon hearing that the quadruple jump she had apparently landed—immediately before her belly flop—may not have been a full four revolutions after all?

Nope, it was Yama, as her friends call her. "I'm telling you, you guys don't know her," said Yamaguchi's coach, Christy Kjarsgaard Ness, to some members of the press. "Little, quiet Kristi shrieked."

In reliving the week of the world championships, let us dispense with the dance competition first. If ice dancing ever was truly sport, as opposed to theater, this year it went beyond the fringe, the chiffon, the taffeta and everything else. Bizarre? Let's put it this way: Bronze medalists Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin of the Soviet Union appeared to open their free dance program in a woodland, with Zhulin hopping like a rabbit around Usova, who was kneeling like a shrub. What happened next was unclear—lots of interpretzeling of body parts, certainly—though the thematic confusion might have been cleared up had the Soviet dancers provided the judges and media with a crib sheet explaining their program's message.

No such mistake was made by the ice dance winners, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France, who issued a press release explaining that they would be skating Missing II, a sequel to Missing, last year's ice dancing hit about repression in a South American dictatorship. In Missing II, the dictatorship is over! This must have been terribly good news to the audience, because the Duchesnays received their first standing ovation merely for showing up in tattered garments and looking tortured. The judges, apparently despairing of trying to put marks on that which should merely be critiqued, let the applause-o-meter decide this one.

Paul was born in France and Isabelle in Canada, where they were both raised. They have trained in Germany since 1985, are coached by a Czech, Martin Skotnicky, and choreographed by a Brit, Christopher Dean, late of Torvill and Dean, the 1984 Olympic gold medalists in dance. Lovers and other strangers also are in their camp since Dean is engaged to marry Isabelle, who is Paul's sister, on May 18. With so many people rooting for them, one had the feeling the Duchesnays would have won for skating Jack and Jill Went up the Hill.

The pairs competition was considerably more uplifting. On March 13, it produced a surprise bronze medal for the U.S. as 27-year-old Todd Sand of Costa Mesa, Calif., and 14-year-old Natasha Kuchiki of Los Angeles, who have been skating together only 18 months, moved from 11th place at the 1990 worlds all the way up to third. But the finest performance of the entire championships was turned in by Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev of the Soviet Union, the latest in a long line of championship Soviet pairs.

Mishkutienok, 20, and Dmitriev, 23, train five days a week with a choreographer from Leningrad's famed Kirov Ballet. Natalia, called Natasha, is as flexible as Gumby and can hoist her ankle above her head while Dmitriev holds her upraised skate and spins her almost flat to the ice, all this accomplished with no more effort than most people would expend falling off a log. That move, incidentally, is called Natasha's Spin, presumably because there is no one else who can do it.

Mishkutienok and Dmitriev had a theme to their free skate program. "She's a light, light cloud," said their coach, Tamara Moskvina. "He's a nice-looking young man who's dreaming about finding his cloud." The two of them meshed so effortlessly during their spins and lifts, that the 5'2½", 110-pound Mishkutienok appeared to be literally weightless, as if she might catch a breeze and drift away at any moment. The 4½-minute program closed with a death spiral, leading into a full, languorous split on the ice, back into another death spiral, leading into Natasha's Spin until she was levitated back into the sky...and oh, heck, it was pure magic.

The men's competition went pretty much according to form, with Kurt Browning of Canada winning his third straight world title—"his hat trick," in the words of Dewey Browning, Kurt's father—this time over the stylish Soviet, Viktor Petrenko. The overall quality of the final five men was quite high, with Browning leading the way by landing three triple-triple combinations that earned him eight 5.9's for technical merit. "Whenever you see a wall of 5.9's you are looking at the winner," said Toller Cranston, who received a mild shock earlier in the evening when his coaching charge, Christopher Bowman, tried the first quad of his career—he fell—just two days after landing his first perfect one in practice. "Christopher's got the courage of Hercules," said Toller, who, in boarding the irrepressible Bowman for the past six months, can claim the labors. Still, Hercules fell two notches from his 1990 standing to finish fifth.

A more rewarding show of heart was displayed by the two-time U.S. men's champion, 19-year-old Todd Eldredge. Taking the ice last Thursday night as the last of the final five skaters, Eldredge needed a flawless performance to have any chance of passing Petr Barna of Czechoslovakia to win the bronze—a finish that would allow the U.S. to send three men to next year's Olympic Games in Albertville, France. Eldredge is one of those rare skaters who performs best when there is no margin for error, and when he nailed his triple Axel-triple toe loop early in his program, the audience erupted.

From that point, Eldredge, not known for his on-ice charisma, pretty much had his way with the crowd. "I wanted to get the program off the ice and into the stands," he said. "I feel it was the best I've skated, and it sounded like the audience got into it, too."

When it was announced that Eldredge had, indeed, taken third, the heavily North American crowd gave him almost as loud a cheer as Browning had received. "I heard from people who've been around a long time that this was one of the best last flights of figure skating they'd seen in their lives," said Browning. "I think the skaters who took over after 1988 have finally come into their own."

That can certainly be said of the American women, especially considering that the 1990 world champion, Jill Trenary, was back in Colorado Springs, recuperating from surgery on her right ankle. "I think it's wonderful," she said when informed of the U.S. women's sweep, accurately adding, "It means next year's nationals is going to be like the Olympics."

Stay tuned for that one, a competition that will include: two world champions, Yamaguchi and Trenary; the defending national champ, Harding; and two world bronze medalists, Kerrigan and Holly Cook (who finished third in the '90 worlds)—all vying for just three spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

The American women, of course, have always been both strong and deep. In truth, though, no one can remember when the European women skaters have been as weak as they are now. The European champion, Bonaly, is a marvelous jumper and spins nicely, but she runs into trouble in between, when she actually has to skate. She might as well be on double runners as she glides stiff-leggedly from one trick to the next—the best of which, a back flip, is not allowed under the rules.

Ito, of course, is a force to be reckoned with, especially if she learns the dimensions of the rink. Entering the competition as the favorite, she introduced a daring short program from which she was fortunate to emerge with her life. First, during warmups, Ito and France's Laetitia Hubert crashed into each other while winding up for their jumps. Ito, who suffered bruised ribs in the crash, slumped against the boards for a full minute, in tears. She pulled herself together and, in the final seconds of the warmups, was finally able to land her combination jump. But she nearly hit the boards in doing so and had to pull up abruptly.

Said Harding, who was leading the short program to that point, "After she ran out of room in the warmups, I thought she'd make an adjustment."

Ito didn't. Over the years she has acquired a reputation for skating too close to the boards, and once again she waited too long to begin her combination triple Lutz-double toe, so that an instant after she landed her second jump, she hurtled over the 12-inch-high barrier that had been cut into the boards to accommodate an ice-level television camera. She quickly reemerged and finished her program. The judges, several of whom did not deduct the mandatory .3 or .4 for the fall, gave her rather generous third-place marks; afterward she was whisked off to the hospital for precautionary X-rays.

Yamaguchi's short program was superb—even Kristi allowed she could hardly have skated it better—and she stood first. Still, she needed to win last Saturday afternoon's free skate in order to take home the world title. Not even her mother, Carole, was confident she could do it. "I don't know if she's mentally tough enough yet," Carole said. "And she doesn't have that triple Axel."

Both Ito and Harding can land a triple Axel. Since finishing second to Harding last month at the nationals in Minneapolis, the 19-year-old Yamaguchi has been knocking herself out trying to put it into her repertoire, without luck. She trains in the Royal Glenora rink, in Edmonton, with a pretty fair jumper named Kurt Browning, among others, so she is not lacking encouragement. And Kjarsgaard Ness is certain she'll have the triple Axel by next year. But there is some question whether Yamaguchi, who evokes such elegance on the ice, even needs a 3½ revolution jump.

She certainly didn't this year. Skating last of the final five competitors, and thinking that if Eldredge had skated so well from that difficult draw, so could she, Yamaguchi was unaware of the great and small disasters that preceded her. First, Bonaly did her skating kangaroo routine, falling twice—once while applauding herself immediately after her near-quad.

Then Harding, after nailing her triple Axel, rushed her triple toe-triple toe combination and turned it into an ungainly single-double. She didn't fall during her program, but landed only four of the seven triples she had planned. "I didn't deserve to win," Harding said later.

Ito, who was experiencing pain both in her ribs and her left ankle, didn't want to skate. But she was persuaded to try by the chairman of the Japanese Skating Federation, Katsuichiro Hisanaga, who was hoping she could hang on to third place, thereby giving the Japanese three spots in the Olympics. It wasn't to be, as the game Ito landed only four of eight triples, falling on one of those occasions. That enabled Kerrigan, who also fell once but otherwise skated well, to pass Ito and finish third in her first worlds. "Next year Midori will do her combination in the middle of the ice," said Hisanaga.

Which left only Yamaguchi. Skating her free program faster than she had at the nationals, taking her jumps visibly higher, Yamaguchi landed six triples while proving that the era of the stylish skater had not yet passed. Remember what Cranston said about a wall of 5.9's? Yamaguchi put up seven of them for artistic impression, plus a perfect 6.0 from Italian judge Franco Benini. "She's such a finished skater," said Harding's coach, Dody Teachman. "Coming into this, I knew Kristi would be our competition."

Browning was so happy that his training partner won that he dissolved into joyous tears. Come to think of it, among the Japanese contingent, team Yamaguchi and a host of proud U.S. coaches and officials, there were a lot of moist eyes last Saturday afternoon in Munich. But that's figure skating. We wouldn't have it any other way.



Skating last in the free skate competition, the elegant Yamaguchi landed six triples and earned a 6.0 from one judge to clinch the gold.



U.S. champion Harding (left) missed three triples but nailed a triple Axel. Kerrigan fell once, but she skated well enough for the bronze.



History-making threesome: from left, Harding, Yamaguchi and Kerrigan.