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For the first time all week, she looked nervous. As Kristi Yamaguchi waited office while the medals podium was erected and the flags were furled in place, the 20-year-old from Fremont, Calif., was wringing her hands like a schoolgirl. "Do I have to say anything?" she asked the smiling, beatific Nancy Kerrigan, her roommate of the past two weeks. Kerrigan shrugged. It was her first Olympics, too. Who knew? Who cared? Enjoy. Pecking around the screen that shielded the skaters from the spectators, Midori Ito located the Japanese cheering section, each of its members carrying a small flag emblazoned with the rising sun. Ito waved at them excitedly, the happiest she had looked since arriving in Albertville. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Nearby, Yamaguchi's coach, Christy Ness, also was beaming, and tears were overfilling her eyes. She saw a friend in the crowd and mouthed, "No triple Axel!" He answered by giving the thumb like a baseball umpire: Triple Axel! Yerrrr out!

Then a voice thundered through the arena, signaling the moment that Yamaguchi had been waiting for, dreaming about, since she was a five-year-old carrying a certain special doll with her everywhere—a Dorothy Hamill doll, if you can believe that, a miniature replica of the last American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating, in 1976.

"La mèdaille d'or...."

Yamaguchi, trepidation and hesitation in her face, turned to Kerrigan standing behind her. Was this really happening? Laughing, Kerrigan gave her the go-ahead nod and nudged her toward the ice.

Yamaguchi had not expected to win the gold, if at all, until the Lillehammer Games, in 1994. This time she was supposed to enjoy her first Olympics, skate well and collect whatever medal the gals with the triple Axels left behind. Kristi and her parents were adamant that she attend the opening ceremony, which was held 11 days before she would compete. If she burned out from too many days in the Olympic Village, training under a media microscope, so be it. "But if she misses the opening ceremony and skates badly," asked Ness, "what are you left with for your Olympic experience?"

So Yamaguchi had it both ways—enjoying the Games and skating beautifully to boot—and completed a whirlwind 11 months, in which she won her first world championship, her first U.S. national title and the Olympic gold medal. The gals with the triple Axels turfed, as the ski jumpers in the athletes' village like to say when a competitor wipes out, and the medal they left behind was gold.

This was a competition incorrectly billed as the athletes versus the artists. The designated athletes were Ito and Tonya Harding of Portland, Ore., the only two women who have landed a 3½-revolution triple Axel in competition. The so-called artists were Yamaguchi and Kerrigan who, to put the matter in perspective, both had more difficult technical programs planned in Albertville than did American gold medal hopeful Debi Thomas—unquestionably an athlete—in the Calgary Games four years ago. Yamaguchi and Kerrigan were plenty athletic. They were just minus the one jump: the triple Axel. And as it turned out, they weren't alone in that.

"Kristi doesn't lift weights to be called fluff," Ness said after the competition, bristling at the athlete-versus-artist theme. She cited the free-weight program Yamaguchi has undertaken in the past two years—repetition squats and power cleans twice a week—as a factor in her rise to the top: "Getting stronger helped her. It gave her confidence and body control. Kristi trains like an athlete."

Harding, conversely, trains like an artist—temperamentally. In January, after her dismal third-place showing at the nationals, where, according to her choreographer, Barbara Flowers, Harding was "fat and undertrained," she returned to Portland and skated without her coach, Dody Teachman, until two weeks before the Olympics. Why? Who knows. She did lose nine pounds and eventually resumed training with Teachman. But Harding seems to think she has all the answers in her stubborn 21-year-old head. It was her idea, for instance, to wait until three days before the short program to arrive in Albertville—a nine-hour time difference from Portland—claiming, "I've never had jet lag in my life."

Nor had she competed in an Olympics or practiced on the Albertville ice. When she struggled in her first two days of practice, bursting into tears after a hard fall the day before the short program, it was clear Harding had cut the time too close.

Yamaguchi and Kerrigan, who were rooming together in the Village, had the opposite problem: how to avoid going stale from inactivity during the first week and a half of the Games, when they were on the ice only 1½ hours a day, and how to cope with the mounting pressure? Yamaguchi escaped the spotlight by leaving for three days to train in Mègève, 35 minutes away. It was there, away from the bustle and the judges' watchful eyes, that she hit her peak and found her center. "She skated beautifully in Mègève," recalled Ness. "Prettier than anything I've seen. A step above. I sat her down and said, 'That's all. You don't have to try to do anything more than what you just did.' It was so beautiful, it didn't matter if a panel of judges put her second. That's what I told her. If you skate like that, it doesn't matter."

Kerrigan, 22, had the flu her first three days in Albertville, so going stale was less a concern than regaining her form. "Getting sick may have helped," said Evy Scotvold, who along with his wife, Mary, coaches Kerrigan. "She stayed fresh."

The fact that her training partner, Paul Wylie, won the men's silver medal in the performance of his career also helped Kerrigan, who was a surprise bronze medalist in last year's world championships. She trains with Wylie in Acton, Mass., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. In addition to being coached by the Scotvolds, there is much that they have in common: When Nancy is having a bad practice in Acton, she will plead with the Scotvolds to let Paul and her work on their pair-skating routine—it's a hoot—which they perform in exhibitions; Wylie and Kerrigan share a house on Cape Cod in the summer; they share the same sponsor, Lisa Webster from Princeton, N.J.; and during the Olympics their parents were all staying in the same house.

Said Wylie, who spent much of last week accompanying Kerrigan to and from practices, speed skating events and press conferences: "What I did made her feel like anything was possible."

Anything—perhaps even beating Ito, who was the consensus choice to win the gold. When Ito arrived in Albertville, six days before the short program, she looked unbeatable. At her first practice she landed three different triple-triple combinations with such ease, such power, that coaches in the stands were burying their eyes in their hands. "The only man I've ever seen outjump her," said Evy Scotvold in near-awe, "is Brian Boitano."

But as the competition grew nearer, Ito began to struggle. She started missing her triple Axel as often as she was landing it, and soon was having difficulty with her other jumps, too. The childlike joy that was once such an appealing element to her skating disappeared. It was replaced by the weight of tension. Of all the women, the pressure on Ito was greatest. The only holdover from the top skaters at the 1988 Games, in which she finished fifth, and the world champion in '89, Ito sought to fulfill the expectations of all Japan, which hadn't had a gold medal winner in the Winter Olympics in 20 years.

So there they were, four skaters vying for three medals. Plus a wild card from the host country, Surya Bonaly, the two-time European champion, who distinguished herself by her abhorrent behavior in practice on the day of the short program. Bonaly performed a back flip—an illegal trick in amateur competition—within a few yards of Ito while the Japanese star was practicing. Ito missed her next jump. "It was intimidating, whether intentional or not," said the International Skating Union's Ben Wright, who, as referee of the women's competition, stepped in and forbade Bonaly from doing any further back flips in practice. "These skaters have enough problems without this kind of bashing going on."

Problems like staying on their feet. In the Feb. 19 short program, which accounted for one third of the scoring, the two most stylish skaters, Yamaguchi and Kerrigan, performed flawlessly and finished one-two. The two "athletes" turfed. Harding overrotated a triple Axel combination and crashed, finishing sixth in the short program. Two nights later, she attempted another triple Axel in her free-skate and looked like she had been bucked off a horse. Still, Harding skated well enough to finish fourth overall. "If we'd been here a few days earlier, it would've given us a chance to get over her jet lag—even though I know Tonya never gets jet lag," said Teachman. "This is a helluva time to be scared and doubting herself, and that's exactly what she did."

Ito, too, skated the short as if she were afraid of failing. Just before she took the ice, she and her coach, Machiko Yamada, decided to replace her triple Axel combination with the easier triple Lutz combination, which both Yamaguchi and Kerrigan had landed earlier in the evening. It was the safe move. "I have been training Midori many years on a day-to-day basis, and I have never seen her fall on this jump," Yamada said later "Never. Sometimes she stumbles. But fall? Never."

But Ito fell on the triple Lutz combination—ignominiously turfed. It brought a mournful gasp from the audience, because Ito is a gracious and popular skater whose talent is not taken lightly in the international skating community. Mary Scotvold said it "broke my heart." Barbara Flowers burst into tears of sympathy.

The mistake put Ito in fourth place after the short program, behind Yamaguchi, Kerrigan and Bonaly. That placement meant Ito, the favorite, could not win the gold if Yamaguchi finished second or better in last Friday's four-minute long program. But Ness was taking nothing for granted, and refused to play it safe by removing the more difficult elements from Yamaguchi's long program—her triple Lutz-triple toe opener and the jump that has been her bane, the triple Salchow. "She's had a lot of firsts in shorts and has had them taken away before," Ness said.

But not recently and certainly not last Friday night. Skating first in the last group of skaters, to the Spanish-styled Malague‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a, Yamaguchi calmly nailed her opening triple-triple combination, her ponytail a blur, then assuredly turned the ice into her stage. She landed her jumps so softly it seemed as if she were skating in her slippers. Yamaguchi's program, which was superbly choreographed by Sandra Bezic, had the crowd spellbound until more than halfway through, when she fell—the groan!—on a relatively easy triple loop. Her confidence shaken, Yamaguchi then turned a planned triple Salchow into a double. But she pulled herself together, landed the difficult triple Lutz and finished well.

Her scores—five 5.7s and four 5.8s for technical merit; one 5.8 and eight 5.9s for artistic impression—left the other skaters little chance to overcome her lead, despite the two errors. As it turned out, those marks won her the long program. All of the top six skaters fell, a testament both to the pressure of the Olympics and the difficulty of the elements they were attempting. Kerrigan touched down on a triple-double combination, then singled two of the triple jumps she had planned. But when Bonaly and Harding also faltered, Kerrigan won the bronze.

"This is overwhelming, really," Kerrigan's mother, Brenda, said, after learning the result. Legally blind, Brenda had poignantly been fighting back tears while watching Nancy's performance on a TV monitor set up especially for her by CBS. I "I don't know how this happened," she said of her daughter's bronze. "I had her in fourth. When I hugged her I said, 'I love you, you did great. But, oh, Nancy, I didn't think you did it.' "

Ito, still skating tentatively after another bad practice on the day of the long program, fell on her first attempt at a triple Axel. But more than three minutes into her program, in what may have been the single gutsiest moment of the figure skating competition, she landed her trademark jump on the second try. A triple Axel, at last—the only one converted in four attempts by Ito and Harding combined. That success brought Ito to life, and in the final minute of her performance, the spark of the 1988 Midori Ito reemerged. It won her the silver medal.

But the judges—and there was no U.S. judge among the nine who arbitrated the women's competition—hadn't needed to wait to see the fate of the triple Axelers to make up their minds. They had made it clear the direction they wanted to see skating proceed. They loved Yamaguchi's grace and carriage. They loved her speed, her consistency under pressure, the variety of skills displayed within her program. And, yes, they loved her artistry. God never gave anyone everything, but Yamaguchi, without the triple Axel, is as close to a complete package as women's skating ever has seen.

ILLUSTRATIONPHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERPHOTORICHARDMACKSONA judge's-eye view of Yamaguchi's Arabian; on the preceding pages, a bird's-eye view.PHOTOTOM LYNNEven without the triple Axel, Yamaguchi proved her athleticism in the freeskate.PHOTORICHARD MACKSONIto bent but didn't break in her long program and moved up from fourth to take the silver.PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAThough legally blind, Brenda Kerrigan was able to monitor Nancy's bronze medal winning program.PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above]