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Yamaguchi nails jumps, takes lead Ito falls, Kerrigan 2nd after short program


ALBERTVILLE, France -- She landed the first triple jump and there was this smile that crossed Kristi Yamaguchi's face, that said it was going to be some night in these Winter Olympics.

"I tried to skate free out there," she would say later. "I wanted everything to be easy."

Midori Ito would crash. And Tonya Harding and her golden

blades would twirl and tumble. And these French kids, this Surya Bonaly with the blue plumes, and this Laetitia Hubert with this bright orange dress, they would give this crowd some moments.

And Nancy Kerrigan. Who could forget her? Katherine Hepburn on skates, all lines and grace, throwing out these triples like they were spun from gold, or something.

But the night belonged to Yamaguchi and the Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz.

It was only the original program, and it was only worth 33 percent of the overall score, but it may have been everything at the Winter Olympics.

This is how stars are born.

Yamaguchi won the program and Kerrigan was second, and America had its made-for-television free-skate final, a pair of roommates going for gold tomorrow night.

But there was more. There was Bonaly in third and Ito, a former world champion from Japan, all the way down in fourth, grasping at numbers and theories in a bid to rekindle gold-medal hopes.

And there was Hubert in fifth. Where did she come from, anyway? And there was Harding in sixth, the 1991 American champion now reduced to skating it out like it was the bottom of the ninth and her team was down by seven.

This was Yamaguchi's show. The 1991 world champion, the one who is called a mere stylist, showed just how tough and ornery she can be under stress. The 2-minute, 30-second original program is this taut test of nerves and strength. One mistake and you're out.

Yamaguchi was perfect. She went out and landed a triple-Lutz-double-toe-loop combination, and showed that she was going to be fine. And then she ran the table, this spinning jumping pool shark in turquoise ticking off all the required elements that separate the contenders and pretenders.

"I'm a little surprised that I'm first," she said.

But she gave a performance that would hold up through the night.

The only one who was close was Kerrigan. She came out first among the contenders and did all the jumps and made them look easy. For two years she has been a lurking presence, the singles' hitter setting the table for the sluggers. She was third in last year's World Championships, and second in this year's U.S. Championships. But what a night she picked to stand and deliver.

"I didn't have the pressure," she said. "I didn't have the nerves. I just had to do my job and the rest was out of my hands."

Ito would get shaken in a morning practice session, running through a program and then suddenly coming to a sudden, shocked stop as Bonaly pulled off a back flip right into Ito's triple. Later, Ito would say she wasn't upset, but when she tumbled 40 seconds into her performance -- dumping a 3 1/2 -revolution Axel for a 3-revolution Lutz -- you knew something had gone wrong.

"I skated very bad," Ito said.

After failing to land any triple axels in her final practice, Ito said coach Machiko Yamada proposed the change.

"The lutz is easier for her but both are difficult though I didn't expect her to fail in either one," Yamada said.

"We changed to a safer program, and it was a big mistake," Ito said.

She was so terrified and terrible that even Mary Scotvold, Kerrigan's coach, had to turn away from the television screen she was watching under the stands of the arena.

"From our experience, electing to do a safer combination is a scary thing," said Scotvold. "I can't tell you how many times we've seen the skater miss the easier jump. It's a matter of losing their focus.

"She broke my heart, Ito," Scotvold said. "She is a wonderful, wonderful girl. You don't want that to happen. There is great pressure on her. Unbelievable pressure."

Pressure took out Harding, too. She went for a triple Axel and ended up sprawled on the ice. Forty seconds into her Olympics and nowhere to go but down.

"Tonya is that kind of gal -- she'd do it or die," said Harding's coach Dodie Teachman.

The revelations were Bonaly, the two-time European champion whose style finally matched her jumping in a vivacious "Zorba the Greek" number, and Hubert, the reigning World Junior champion who busted into the big-time by leaping to "In the Mood."

But this was Yamaguchi's night. For a year all she has been hearing was that she was headed for a confrontation with Ito. But when it happened, a bunch of skaters ate ice and Yamaguchi was standing and smiling.

"You can't think of situations that might have happened," Yamaguchi said.

What the Olympics are left with is this: Yamaguchi vs. Kerrigan, with Bonaly and Ito on the outside, looking for one slip to slip in for the gold.

It's almost too perfect, now. Too perfect for America. Too perfect for American TV. Yamaguchi and Kerrigan have been sharing a room for two weeks. They're self-described neat freaks, who now have much in common.

"We knew it would be comfortable," Yamaguchi said.

It was some night in this arena. Let them sleep. Let them dream.

The triples and the gold can wait.

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