ALBERTVILLE, France -- There is no hiding the frustration that has built in Todd Eldredge. It is there every day in practice, every time he attempts a triple Axel jump, the move that has come to separate the medal contenders from the pretenders in men's figure skating.
Eldredge, the 1990 and 1991 national champion, is not the skater he could have been at these Winter Olympics. He realizes that with every botched triple Axel attempt, like the one during a run-through yesterday morning of the original program he will skate when the men's competition begins tonight.
"It's difficult for me to watch him feel frustrated with himself," said Eldredge's coach, Richard Callaghan. "A kid like this dreams about going to the Olympics since 9 or 10 years old, works and trains for it. Then when the opportunity presents itself, he can't be 100 percent."
Eldredge, 20, hasn't been at full strength the entire season. His foot hurt while finishing second at Skate America in September, and the cause was found to be a stress fracture. After three weeks off to let that heal, Eldredge punctured the same foot with the blade of the other skate. That required 2 1/2 more weeks off the ice.
Then his training schedule was way behind. In the haste to catch up, Eldredge aggravated a chronic disk problem. That would eventually keep him from skating at January's U.S. Championships, where the top three men were to make the Olympic team -- under normal circumstances.
Using a provision in its rules, the U.S. Figure Skating Association named Eldredge to the Olympic team because he had won a medal -- bronze -- at the 1991 World Championships. That decision, contingent on Eldredge proving his fitness, bumped third finisher Mark Mitchell from the team.
Two weeks later, when Eldredge showed he could skate, Mitchell stopped biting his tongue and blasted the federation for what he called callous treatment.
"I've had it with them," he said. "I'm sick of being nice. I'm sick of it . . . I see young kids out there skating, and I want to tell them, 'Don't do it. It's not fair what they [judges] can do to you emotionally.' "
The whole Mitchell affair has discomfited Eldredge, a quiet, unassuming fisherman's son from South Chatham, Mass.
"I know if I mess up the slightest bit, there will be people who will say, 'See, we should have sent Mark Mitchell,' " Eldredge said. "It's like I'm trying to prove to everybody I belong here.
"If I don't do well, there will be some people who say last year's worlds were a fluke. But they said that about me when I won the nationals in 1990."
Those aspersions were owed to the withdrawal of an injured Christopher Bowman after the original program in the 1990 U.S. Championships. In 1991, Eldredge proved himself again by beating a healthy Bowman.
"Todd is probably putting extra pressure on himself," Callaghan said. "That's normal given the [Mitchell] situation, but it's not something you need at the Olympics."
Eldredge understands that his decision to skate here was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't sort of thing. He is considered a lock to make the team for the next Winter Olympics, only two years away because of the changed sched
ule, but this year has taught Eldredge not to count on anything.
"Todd has heard over and over again, 'He's young, he's got a future,' " Callaghan said. "But you never know what is going to happen in the future."
Eldredge's original back problem has been treated well enough for him to perform respectably. He is bothered more by muscles on the other side of his back, strained during his long overseas trip to France and the ensuing formalities of being processed as an Olympic competitor.
"I've definitely labeled this as not the best of years," Eldredge said, "and I can see why. With all the [skating] tours and things I did after the last World Championships, I never took a real vacation to let my body rest."
This year, Eldredge will take at least a month off after the World Championships in mid-March. For now, there is the more pressing matter of tonight's original program, in which one major mistake would knock him out of medal contention in the field of 30 skaters.
In the original program, worth 33 percent of the total score, each skater must do eight required moves or elements. One of them is a jump combination, and nearly all the top skaters will do a triple Axel-triple toe loop as that combination. Anything less would draw lower scores for required elements.
Kurt Browning of Canada, world champion the past three years, has shown in practice that the back injury that sidelined him for a month has sufficiently recovered that he remains the favorite. Others in the medal hunt are two-time world runner-up Viktor Petrenko of the Unified Team, U.S. champion Bowman, jumping phenom Alexei Urmanov of the Unified Team and European champion Petr Barna.
"I think I can do a decent short program, even though it isn't perfect," Eldredge said. "I'd like to be in the top three but I would be happy with top five.
"You've got to try for everything you get. If you can compete in the Olympic Games, you should make the best of it."