Yamaguchi's size doesn't diminish her art of perfection


ORLANDO, Fla. -- For those who watch winter sports once every four years, this is all you need to know about next month's Winter Olympics in Albertville, France:

The leading lady will wear a size 1 dress.

Kristi Yamaguchi, a 5-foot, 93-pound wisp, won her first ladies title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday night.

She is now the official ice princess in waiting. In four weeks, billions around the world will watch her every move, peering at the twists, spins and jumps she uses to turn a sport into a work of art.

But Yamaguchi, a 20-year-old from Fremont, Calif., sounded like an athlete prepared to meet the demands of fame while training for the defining moment of her career.

"I don't think anything will change," Yamaguchi said. "I just have to go out and skate my best."

At her best, she may be unbeatable.

For the past year, Yamaguchi, fellow Americans Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and Japan's Midori Ito have been locked in an exhilarating four-way competition for skating supremacy.

In last year's World Championships in Munich, Germany, Yamaguchi, Harding and Kerrigan staged a 1-2-3 American sweep after Ito spun into the photographers' pit.

But with Saturday's free-skate performance, Yamaguchi may have separated herself from her rivals.

Yamaguchi landed seven triple jumps. She struck the perfect poses to catch the seductive mood of Malaguena. Even when the raspberry ribbon fell from her hair and floated to the ice, Yamaguchi was splendid. She simply turned the ribbon into a prop, gliding away from danger, and closer to stardom.

One judge gave her a perfect score of 6 for artistic elements.

"That was as good as Kristi has ever skated," said Yamaguchi's coach, Christy Kjarsgaard Ness.

Yamaguchi's ascendancy to first after three straight second-place finishes was the highlight of the U.S. championships.

Billed as an Olympic trial, the championships showed that the United States could win as many as five medals in Albertville. Among the U.S. champions, only dance competitors April Sargent-Thomas and Russ Witherby are considered to have no chance of earning a medal at the Olympics.

Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval became medal contenders in pairs after their surprising triumph over reigning world bronze medalists Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand.

The singles produced more doubt than drama.

Todd Eldredge, unable to compete because of an injured lower back, was awarded an Olympic berth in men's singles, based on his history of winning two U.S. titles and finishing third in last year's World Championships.

"It's a relief," Eldredge said. "But I still have to prove myself. If I can't skate, I won't go."

The American men probably will need all the help they can get. Christopher Bowman, in his latest bid to reinvent himself as a serious performer, played it safe and slow to win the men's title. But with back injuries grounding the world's elite skaters, Bowman has to rank as a medal contender.

Paul Wylie survived two bobbles in the free skate in winning the hearts and minds of the judges to finish second. Mark Mitchell, the odd man out, placed third and was given the consolation prize of a World Championship team berth.

"I'll probably watch the Olympics like I always do, curling up on my couch with a bowl of popcorn," Mitchell said.

In the ladies division, there is strength in numbers. Harding, bothered by a strained tendon in her right foot during a warm-up Friday, fell on her triple Axel in both the original and free-skate programs, but held on to third place.

Second place went to Kerrigan, the elegant throwback in a sport that is turning into a jumping exhibition.

Yamaguchi is the performer who bridges the gap between the artists and the athletes. She can appear delicate one moment and powerful the next. She can turn a shoulder and then a triple.

Only Ito, and Harding's tender foot, may stand between the U.S. women and an unprecedented Olympic medal sweep. But the leading lady already has been chosen.

C7 Yamaguchi will try to prove that smaller is better.

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