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Original Issue

Next Stop, Albertville

Kristi Yamaguchi looked truly Olympian winning the nationals

There were lots of good reasons that the folks who won titles at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last week should not have done so. One champion was supposedly too ill. Another was reputedly too old. A third was too untrained and too incorrigible. And a fourth, the eventual star of the competition, women's champion Kristi Yamaguchi. was said to be too unathletic, for pity's sake, too artistic for a world gone mad for jumping.

You could have fooled the 13,396 fans at sold-out Orlando Arena last Saturday night who witnessed Yamaguchi at her finest when she fashioned one of the most complete figure skating performances ever seen on American ice, one of grace, athleticism and style. Not only did Yamaguchi put a gulf between herself and the rest of the U.S. women, but she also would have whipped the cream of American male skaters had she been entered in that soporific scrabble of alleged titans.

Another thing: Not one of last year's winners prevailed this year. Judges, who traditionally have balked like mules at the idea of lifting titles from current holders in the year of an Olympics—the last time the defending champions in the four major events were dethroned in an Olympic year was 1928—properly saddled the 1991 champs with an oh-for-Orlando, a box score that included an intentional walk by Todd Eldredge. Winner of the men's title in 1990 and '91. Eldredge withdrew from the competition on Thursday, complaining of a severe back sprain. On Saturday, Eldredge nevertheless was named to the Olympic team by the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) on the basis of his third-place finish in last year's world championships.

The unlikeliest victors in Orlando were the dance team of April Sargent-Thomas and Russ Witherby, who won the ice dancing competition less than three weeks after Sargent-Thomas had undergone emergency surgery in her hometown of Ogdensburg, N.Y., to repair a ruptured ovarian cyst. Seven ounces of blood were removed from her abdomen during the operation, which took place on Dec. 21, and it was five days before she could get out of bed without help. Sargent-Thomas's doctors told her she had no chance of recovering in time for the nationals. But on Dec. 29, Sargent-Thomas was back on the ice, and even though she suffered frequent dizzy spells and felt faint during practices, a mere 12 days later she and Witherby performed an energetic and stylish four-minute program that won them their first U.S. championship.

Nearly as remarkable was the victory in the pairs by first-time champions Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval, the heroes of working stiffs and dreamers. They have been a team for less than a year and a half. Urbanski is Marval's third partner. Marval is Urbanski's sixth. In addition to training 40 hours a week, Marval, 26, owns and runs a small trucking company in New Egypt, N.J., while Urbanski, 31, works as a waitress at a Wilmington, Del., yuppie bar and grill called Kid Shelleen's.

To refer to these two as grizzled veterans is to understate the case. Urbanski is closer in age to the mothers of her competitors than she is to the little darlings themselves. Veteran USFSA officials, who do not keep records of such minutiae, say you have to go back at least 50 years to find a U.S. titlist who was her senior. "I feel pretty good," Urbanski said after winning, her voice raspy enough to file a board. "Not as good as I did at 18, but pretty good."

Indeed, she is the most energetic skater among the top U.S. pairs and is already making noises about staying in the sport through the 1994 Olympics. "They're not an artistic pair," said their coach, Ron Ludington. "But they're exciting. There's a determination in them that shows. A truck driver and a waitress win the national championship. It's not the status quo, that's for sure."

A more familiar name dominated the men's competition—too familiar for many USFSA officials. We speak, of course, of Christopher Bowman, a.k.a. Hans Brinker from hell. Let us bring you up-to-date on Bowman's latest embroilment. In October he was mugged in Toronto. He was beaten so severely that a bone in his face was fractured, and he required plastic surgery. Bowman never filed a police report. A rumor, widely circulated and denied by Bowman last week, was that the mugging occurred after Bowman had left a crack house without paying his bill. Franklin Nelson, president of the USFSA, said in Orlando that he had asked Bowman about the crack house rumor and that Bowman had assured him there was nothing to it.

All this came up last week during a press conference with Bowman and his coach of only five weeks, John Nicks, who is Bowman's third mentor in 1½ years. The venerable Nicks said that Bowman, like his other skaters who are 16 and older, had agreed to undergo confidential periodic drug testing. He had accepted Bowman, he said, because "at my stage of life there aren't many challenges left, but heck, there's one here."

When asked why he had not filed a police report, Bowman began carrying on about the laid-back attitude of Toronto police as if he'd been mugged in a Third World nation. "This isn't like Los Angeles," Bowman said, "where it's cuffed-and-the-rubber-hose."

At which point, Nicks jumped in. "I'd really like to move on to the triple Axel, if you don't mind," he said, glowering at Bowman. "Do you remember that little chat we had before we came here?"

We're still waiting, incidentally, to move on to that triple Axel, the difficult 3½-revolution jump that Bowman did not attempt in either his original or free-skating program. That Bowman won his second U.S. title (the other came in 1989) without that jump, and easily at that, speaks of how little depth there is among the American men. To be fair, Nicks forbade Bowman to attempt the triple Axel, which he lands erratically, to ensure that he finish in the top two and qualify for the Olympic team.

Bowman, however, is miles behind the world's best, as he showed on Saturday during his free-skating program, despite performing it cleanly. You could have gone out and ordered a pizza in the dead time between his elements. "Boring, simple and dull," was the way ABC commentator Dick Button critiqued Bowman's performance, off-camera, likening it to "spinach soup" and "Mrs. Peach's dance recital." If Bowman were to skate the same way in Albertville, he would probably finish fourth. In the women's competition, that is—behind Yamaguchi, Midori Ito of Japan and Tonya Harding.

Say this for Harding, who fell on the two triple Axels she attempted while trying to defend her women's crown: She wasn't going to cheat the audience out of her best effort. In a practice session on Friday morning, Harding caught her skate against the boards while stroking out. She twisted her right ankle, and her right foot is the one she lands on. The tendon over the instep became inflamed, so when Harding tried a triple Axel in the original program that night—she and Ito arc the only women who have landed one in competition—the foot buckled when she landed, and she fell. Harding finished, but without the triple Axel there was precious little left to her performance.

She missed her triple Axel again in Saturday's free-skating program and landed only two of five other planned triples. "I'm just happy to be on the Olympic team," said a relieved Harding after limping off the ice and winding up third. Second place went to stylish Nancy Kerrigan, 22, of Stoneham, Mass., who, like Yamaguchi, is known for her artistic skating. So much for the theory that artless little jumpers are taking over the sport.

Not that it really mattered how anyone else skated, for no one was going to beat Yamaguchi. The reigning world champion, Yamaguchi seems to have come to grips with the fact that she is never going to get a triple Axel into her repertoire, so she is making the most of the weapons she has: five different triple jumps, a dazzling assortment of spins, a nifty Russian split, natural grace and the ability to feel the music while skating—a seemingly lost art. It is a potent arsenal.

Yamaguchi's Achilles' heel is the dread triple Salchow, which she had missed, even mangled, in four consecutive competitions before Saturday's, dating back to last year's nationals. A mental block, they call it, one that requires harsh medicine. Yamaguchi's mother, Carole, could think of only one thing that might work—a bribe. She offered her daughter $100 if she landed the triple Sal.

Never underestimate the power cold cash has over a financially strapped 20-year-old. Skating to Spanish-style music, at times imagining herself strong-willed and dramatic, at other times soft and romantic, Yamaguchi was pure enchantment on Saturday night. Adding to the drama, Yamaguchi lost her red hairband during a triple toe loop midway through the free-skating program—one of seven flawless triples she landed—in the exact center of the ice, so that each time she skated past it, the spectators' hearts rose to their throats, so fearful was everyone that Yamaguchi might slip on the red ribbon and ruin the performance.

And when Yamaguchi nailed her triple Sal—during the awards ceremony she raised her winner's tray toward her mother and mouthed "triple Sal" to remind her of the $100—her considerable following erupted. That charge gave the final minute of the performance the momentum to crackle to conclusion, with Yamaguchi receiving the most heartfelt standing ovation of the week and a perfect 6.0 from one judge for artistic impression. A month from now, such a performance surely would be golden. As it was, it served notice that at least one American skater is in her prime and at her peak.



Yamaguchi won a bet and lost a hairband during her dazzling performance last Saturday.



That Bowman prevailed without trying a triple Axel spoke volumes about the men's field.



Working stiffs Urbanski and Marval didn't let age stand in their way in winning the pairs.