It's getting hotter for Ice Queen Yamaguchi


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It will take less than seven minutes.

Fifteen years of Kristi Yamaguchi's life, innumerable falls, dozens of routines, a gazillion sequins, and in 6 minutes, 40 seconds next February, all that time and effort will be put to the test.

A new Ice Queen will be crowned at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Will it be Yamaguchi?

Perhaps, but whatever Yamaguchi makes of her few Olympic minutes -- a 2-minute, 40-second original program the first evening and a 4-minute program two days later -- will shape the rest of her life in ways both profound and petty.

"From that moment your life changes forever," said Sunnyvale, Calif., native Brian Boitano, crowned Ice King of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. "A figure-skating gold medal is the gold medal of the Olympics."

Win it, and you're treated like royalty.

"I don't want her to know that," said her mother Carole. "I don't want her to feel that."

Carole Yamaguchi tries not to think about the Olympics, not even as her daughter prepares for Skate America, the season's first international competition that began Thursday in Oakland, Calif.

It's no wonder Yamaguchi's father frets about pressuring her. No wonder Yamaguchi has lived the past two years in sub-arctic Edmonton, Alberta, another country and another world from where she grew up.

Yet the day is coming when facing the pressure will be unavoidable.

"Who has the strongest nerves has the best chance," said reigning queen Katerina Witt on the eve of her coronation in Calgary.

Witt faced Debi Thomas, who was in the position Yamaguchi occupies now. Like 20-year-old Yamaguchi of Fremont, Calif., Thomas also was from the Bay Area. She, too, had moved away from home to train for the Olympics. As does Yamaguchi, she began her Olympic year as the world champion.

On the climactic evening of the competition, Thomas stumbled on her first big jump. Dispirited, she flubbed two more. The mistakes occupied only seconds of her few minutes, but nine judges and a billion television viewers saw them.

LTC Yamaguchi has proved vulnerable to pressure. Heavily favored at the nationals last February, she fell in her long program and finished second to Tonya Harding. A month later, with the public's expectations for her considerably lowered, she won the worlds and received the first perfect 6.0 score of her career. Harding was second.

Still, Yamaguchi is much less the focus of attention than Thomas was in '88. She is but one of five U.S. skaters to win medals in the last two world championships.

In 1990, Jill Trenary won the gold and Holly Cook the bronze. Last March, when Yamaguchi won the gold, Harding took the silver and Nancy Kerrigan the bronze, the only 1-2-3 sweep by any nation in world championship history.

In the three pre-Olympic competitions on her schedule, which includes one in Albertville in November and the nationals in Orlando, Fla., in January, Yamaguchi will be no better than co-favorite in any.

"I think Kristi skates better when she knows she's an underdog, which maybe every athlete does," Carole Yamaguchi said. "It's hard going in favored."

Men's world champion Kurt Browning, who trains at the same rink as Yamaguchi, says people don't give Yamaguchi enough credit for mental toughness. "She gets nervous," he said. "If you don't, it means either you're not human or you don't care. She can handle it."

The pressure is already building.

Yamaguchi's picture is on cereal boxes. She's in ads for %J leotards, sunglasses, a macaroni-and-cheese manufacturer and brand of bottled water. The family considered and then rejected hiring an agent.

Ted Turner's network has videotaped her lifting weights and driving her Mustang. She and her coach, Christy Kjarsgaard-Ness, recently spent a week squiring around TV and press folks eager to begin their pre-coronation coverage.

More and more, Yamaguchi is taking responsibility for herself. When she moved to Edmonton in 1989, she lived with Kjarsgaard-Ness and her husband 30 minutes away in the Alberta farming community of Stony Plain.

This summer Yamaguchi and Danish champion Anisette Torp-Lind rented an apartment together near the University of Alberta. They're learning things 20-year-olds learn, such as $25 per week is a bit tight for a food budget.

"When we moved in I didn't even have a bed," Yamaguchi said. "We didn't have anything to clean the house with."

She says she may skate in the 1994 Olympics in Norway, taking advantage of this unique two-year interim between Games to relieve the pressure of a once-only shot at the crown.

She plans to cope with the next six months of press and pressure by ignoring them or turning them to her advantage.

Thomas says Yamaguchi should not fear either. "If you didn't have the press, you wouldn't ever be able to become famous," Thomas said. "I don't think the press was a factor in me screwing up. You're really responsible for yourself out there."

There remains a giant hurdle for Yamaguchi: the triple Axel.

Triple jumps are the current standard of athletic achievement by which women figure skaters are judged, and Yamaguchi is one of the most acrobatic skaters in history. Although she has seven triples in her long program, she is yet to land a triple Axel -- a misnomer because it's really 3 1/2 revolutions -- but the most difficult of all triples nevertheless.

Japan's Midori Ito and Harding are the only women to have landed a triple Axel in competition, and Yamaguchi has spent more than two frustrating years trying to catch up.

"I know it's something I can do, but I don't know what my problem is," she said.

"I've been very close for a long time. I've landed it on one foot when it wasn't quite around. I've landed on it with two feet. I just haven't landed it clean backward on one foot yet."

Browning, perhaps Yamaguchi's closest friend and one of two men to land a quad (four revolutions) in competition, believes she'll have the Axel by the Olympics.

"She'll do it on her own without the pressure of America, her friends and the media," he said. "She's learned how to win."

End of yamaguch

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