ORLANDO, Fla. -- Imperfection will land Paul Wylie in law school. Outrageousness will put Christopher Bowman a step closer to laying siege to the Olympic Games in Albertville, France.
Those are the stakes today at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Wylie, the Harvard graduate, the favorite of the sport's ruling class, stumbled to fourth in yesterday's original program at the Orlando Arena.
Bowman, Elvis on blades, crossed himself one moment, hugged a female television reporter the next and soared to first.
Sandwiched between the yin and yang of American skating are Mark Mitchell, a fast-rising 23-year-old skater from Hamden, Conn., who was second after the original program, and Scott Davis, 21, of Great Falls, Mont., who was third. Both remain threats to win today.
And looming over the entire competition is two-time reigning champion Todd Eldredge, who is sidelined with a back injury. Eldredge is expected to be awarded one of the three Olympic qualifying spots by the U.S. Figure Skating Association's international committee.
Finish first or second, and you go next month to Albertville. Finish third, and you stay home.
"I guess this is my last shot," Wylie said. "It's my last nationals anyway. I'll try to skate as well as I can and round out my career. This will be my last amateur performance, if, God forbid, things don't work out."
It has been a long run for Wylie, performing on the ice, under the lights, for 17 of his 27 years. He is a skating stylist, a 5-foot-4 entertainer who puts together the jumps and the music like some sort of elfin Tommy Tune.
But all along, he has skated with a handicap. While others practiced and shopped for a living, Wylie squeezed a full academic load at Harvard into a full-time career.
"I always felt like I was competing with one hand tied behind my back," he said. "This was the year I was going to put everything into my skating."
He got his degree in general studies, with honors. He completed 11 law school applications. He was ready to pursue a berth for his second Olympic team in his final amateur season.
"I feel like the old man in the rink," said Wylie, 10th at the 1988 Calgary Games. "I'm still skating well. I'm still at the top of my game. I felt denying myself one more goal, one more time would be wrong."
So Wylie went out in yesterday's 2-minute, 40-second original program, worth 33 percent of the overall score, and he stumbled when it mattered most. He touched down with his hand on a triple Axel and then caught a blade and fell. He missed his combination jump. Only his style kept him from fading to fifth.
"My goal was to win the nationals," he said. "Now, my goal is gone. Now, I'm just trying to win a place on the Olympic team."
Now these nationals belong to Bowman, 24, of Los Angeles. They are his to win or lose in today's free skate final, worth 67 percent of the overall score.
Back him against a wall, and Bowman comes out swinging. Three coaches in 16 months and a mugging couldn't stop him.
"I think the hardships that I have faced, and the inappropriate media attention I've received this week, have caused me pain," he said. "But I've always been taught to take that pressure and make it productive."
He won the original program by doing what he does best -- playing the room, even if it was half-filled.
"It looked like the snooker championship of the world," he said.
The fans who did attend weren't snookered Bowman hit a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. He landed a double Axel. He finished at center ice and crossed himself, for goodness sakes.
And then, he became the first competitor in history to turn a post-skate interview into a date, hugging ABC-TV announcer Julie Moran in the "kiss and cry" area. Even Bowman's newest coach, John Nicks, had to smile.
"I thought having Christopher Bowman follow coaching instructions for 2 minutes and 40 seconds was the most memorable achievement of my 31 years in coaching," Nicks said.
Follow instructions for 4:30 today, and Bowman just might find himself going to the Olympics.
Will France be ready?