American women skaters harbor high hopes again


ORLANDO, Fla. -- The 1992 U.S. Olympic figure-skating team strongly resembles the 1988 team in that its strength is the singles skaters and more women than men are likely to win medals.

While it would be unrealistic to expect Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan to occupy the victory stand next month in Albertville, France, as they did last March at the world championships in Munich and the national championships that ended here Saturday night, they await the Winter Games in much the same way that Debi Thomas, Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy did the Calgary Olympics four years ago:

Just as the last group had one major force from elsewhere to consider, Katarina Witt of East Germany, the current trio has only Midori Ito of Japan to regard as capable of disrupting a sweep.

Never mind that only Thomas won a medal in 1988, and the wrong color at that, the bronze behind Witt's gold and the silver won by Elizabeth Manley of Canada. Or that Trenary succumbed to nerves and Kadavy the flu. Things happen.

For now, considering the recent past and present, the American women should figure on capturing no fewer than two medals, and it's not even certain which two skaters might prevail.

As they dominated the women's competition here last week, each left evidence of brilliance in some form, and Yamaguchi had the further distinction of finally winning her first national singles title after three years of finishing second.

The 20-year-old daughter of third-generation Japanese-American parents who live in Fremont, Calif., Yamaguchi competed the best overall competition of her four-year career in the seniors. She won the top scores of all nine judges for her original program on Friday night and all nine again in the free skate on Saturday, when she earned one score of 6.0, the only perfect mark awarded in all divisions of the championships, novice through seniors.

Better yet, in her free skate, she landed a triple-Salchow jump for the first time in more than a year. The jump involves taking off from the back inside edge of one foot and landing on the back outside edge of the opposite foot. It has been her chief nemesis, especially in the absence of a triple-axel, a more difficult jump that, among women, only Ito and Harding have ever landed.

"I was most excited about that jump," Yamaguchi said. "Coming in, no matter what I did, I was going to land that jump."

Artistically, Yamaguchi has no match in the world, and of all the other leading skaters, only Kerrigan comes close. Ito is bouncier and far less delicate. Surya Bonaly, the French champion, will generate all kinds of raucous support from the hometown crowds at Albertville, but astute judges will see through the noise.

Kerrigan, a 22-year-old skater from Stoneham, Mass., had the best finish in the nationals of her career, too, despite missing three of seven planned triple jumps by skipping one and reducing the others to doubles.

Kerrigan is the least known of the American trio only because her excellence has blossomed later.

"I had no style when I was a young skater," Kerrigan said last week. "When I was little, I was a spaz. All I could do was go back and forth and up and down the ice real fast."

A year ago, Kerrigan's style pushed her into the world view by finishing third behind Harding and Yamaguchi at the nationals, then third again behind Yamaguchi and Harding in the worlds. She is much improved since then, as she showed last week, a better skater athletically and esthetically.

Harding, 21, also burst forth last year, when her triple-axel helped her upset Yamaguchi for her first national title. She is the real jock of the group, a fine pool shooter from Portland, Ore., who has recently dabbled in drag racing.

She pulled a muscle in her right ankle -- the one she lands on in the triple-axel -- during practice on Friday, hours before her original program. She still finished third, only to reinjure the ankle again in practice early Saturday, and the pain caused her to miss the jump in her free skate.

The three men skaters on the Olympic team will probably not enjoy as much success as the women. One medal would be a reasonable expectation, maybe a silver. If Kurt Browning of Canada has no more back problems, he will be difficult to beat for the gold. Bowman would have the best chance, but he has never won a major international event.

Paul Wylie is highly susceptible to the pressures of major events, and Todd Eldredge, the national champion of 1990 and 1991 who withdrew from these nationals with a back injury, has just 12 days to prove he is healthy enough to make the team.

Americans have generally been weak in the pairs and ice-dancing events, and that may remain the case. Neither of the just-crowned champions -- Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval in pairs and April Sargent-Thomas and Russ Witherby -- skated impressively enough to be considered a gold-medal threat.

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