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Wylie lands triple, gets shot at gold American erases doubts by grabbing third place


ALBERTVILLE, France -- It started from somewhere down by the ice and worked its way to the rafters.

The bolt of noise just kept rising after Paul Wylie finally landed the triple jump, finally silenced all the doubts of a career in the 3 1/2 -revolution whir of navy blue.

The guy who always falls didn't. Not this night. Kurt Browning would drop. And so would Christopher Bowman. And so would Todd Eldredge.

But there was Wylie at the end, a 5-foot-4 elf on silver blades, standing and smiling and grabbing hold of the 1992 Winter Olympics last night. It was snowing in the mountains and raining in this truck-stop-of-a-town, but in the Olympic rink, there was nothing but light and noise and his smile.

"I was so surprised that I pulled it off," Wylie would say later, standing in a dingy corridor of plywood boards, the smile still on his face.

"I think I proved a lot of things to myself," he said.

It's not over yet, not for the 27-year-old Harvard graduate, and not for this skating competition. But after a men's original program laced with the kind of anxiety that makes figure skating a high-tension race on ice, Wylie is still in the medal lottery.

He is third overall. Ahead of him are Viktor Petrenko of the Unified Team and Petr Barna of Czechoslovakia.

Behind him is Browning, the three-time world champion from Canada.

What it all means: Wylie wins tomorrow night's free skate, worth 67 percent of the overall score, and he takes the gold.

"The short program is a mid-term," he said. "The long program is a final. I've got to ace it."

Wylie's is one of the amazing skating fables played out at the Winter Olympics. No one expected him here. Not after the last year. Not after the disaster at the 1991 World Championships in Munich, when he finished 20th, back in the pack with all the skaters from countries that make computers and cars, not skaters and men's champions.

And certainly not after last November's Trophy Lalique competition, right in Albertville, when he turned into a Zamboni as he mopped up the ice.

"I was concerned about my psyche," he said. "I got home, and nobody talked about it. CBS didn't even show it. I got Christmas presents. It was like a tree falling in the forest, and no one was there."

There were some who told him to take his political science degree and get a job. He sent out 11 law school applications. He started talking like a guy looking for an exit line. But there was something he didn't want to leave unfinished.

The stylist, the kid who began skating at the age of 3, wanted to become a champion.

"Denying myself the opportunity one more time, was not worth getting on with the rest of my life," he said. "I'm still skating well. I'm on the top of my game."

He nearly crashed and burned at last month's U.S. Nationals in Orlando, Fla. He finished the free skate and got into his street clothes, figuring the judges were about to send him home for good. Instead, he was given a reprieve, awarded second place )) to earn his second Olympic berth.

"1988 was the year of my generation in the Olympics," he said. "After that, I didn't have a whole lot in common with the kids. I was pursuing my education and they wanted to go shopping. I feel like the old man in the sport."

But on the ice he's still the tap-dancing star.

Sure, Petrenko was better. The guy is tailor-made for the original program, all triples and military-style flourishes. And Barna held up, too.

Then the other medal contenders began falling, one by one. Browning, dressed in a burnt-orange gladiator outfit with short sleeves, tumbled on a triple. Bowman, the Hans Brinker from Hell, the reigning U.S. champion, was so slow he could have given an interview before attempting his triple Axel. He touched down with two feet and a hand. And Eldredge, the two-time U.S. champion who missed last month's nationals in Orlando with a back injury, flopped on a triple.

Wylie was the last American left standing.

"It's a lot like downhill," he said. "For two minutes and forty seconds you hang on for dear life."

But last night he beat this beast of a program with a waltz, skating the cleanest, most technically demanding show of his career. He landed the triple jump combination, the one that always sent him tumbling to the ice. And he finished on top of the painted Olympic rings, right in front of the judges, with that Olympic flame of a smile spreading across his face.

"I think I've proved that I do stand under pressure," he said.

It all builds from here. Even in the dingy hallway on the greatest night of his career, he was asked about giving one more performance, stealing a medal.

Can Wylie actually win this?

"Me? No. I don't think so," he said. "Nope. Never entered my mind. I can't approach it that way, or I'll freak out."

Why spoil the moment and ask about the future? This one was for a past now buried. Whatever happens, Wylie will have this one night, when he made a building shake and an Olympics come to life.

"I was dreading today because I knew I would look back on the day and say, 'I did it,' or 'I didn't do it,' " he said. "That was good for the rest of my life."

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