Yamaguchi, Kerrigan take early skating bows leapers take tumbles


ALBERTVILLE, France -- If form holds -- Olympic gold medalist to the Ice Capades, silver medalist to the Ice Follies, bronze medalist to Disney on Ice -- then the two power hitters at the Savoie Winter Games, Midori Ito and Tonya Harding, suddenly ** are struggling to stay out of Minnie Mouse and Pluto costumes.

Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan are on the verge of landing some starring roles on the pro skating tour.

Last night's women's figure-skating original program, one-third of the scoring but halfway home, psychologically, certainly had its surprises in setting up tomorrow night's decisive freestyle program. Kerrigan, the 22-year-old New Englander who goes for the cool Katharine Hepburn look, skated first among the contenders and, in effect, made all her free throws.

Then Harding, the hardscrabble 21-year-old from Oregon who knows how to shoot with a pool cue and a hunting rifle, missed her slam dunk -- the triple axel, which she counts on to carry her short program. Followed by Yamaguchi, the 20-year-old Californian who is poised under pressure beyond her years, nailing the equivalent of several pretty 20-foot

jumpers. And Japan's Ito, another leaper, who missed her big shot, too, a triple-double combination. And up-and-coming Frenchwoman Laetitia Hubert, from out of nowhere, scored big. And Surya Bonaly, France's reigning European champion, fit into the heat of action like a tough rebounder.

So instead of an anticipated Yamaguchi vs. Ito one-two punch, the short-program standings read: Yamaguchi, Kerrigan, Bonaly, Ito, Hubert, Harding.

"My program was a waltz," Yamaguchi said, "The Blue Danube. So I tried to skate free and create, uh, a romantic mood. Easy, flowing and nice to watch. The original program is where most of the tension is, because of the required elements, so if I could get through that. . ."

She more than got through. While the judges were counting the eight necessary moves -- imposee is the word the French use, and it fits, because the skaters feel imposed upon -- Yamaguchi gave the appearance of someone dancing as if nobody were looking. Just enjoying herself. From an early triple-double combination which she made look easy, Yamaguchi moved through twirls and splits and spins and jumps flawlessly, with the graceful arm and hand movements of a ballerina and the nerve of a linebacker.

Kerrigan, too, shone in the heat of the spotlight. "It would have been unnatural to have no nerves," she said. "But I just dealt with it. When I was training at home, I tried to think then that I was on the Olympic ice, and then tonight I tried to think this ice was just my rink at home. But then I looked up, as I was waiting for the music to start, and I saw the Olympic flag with the rings and I said, 'Oh, gosh, this is the Olympics. I've got to do it now.' "

She did it. A triple-double combination, a variety of spins and footwork and using her height, 5-4, for long-held swan-like poses she glided. Yemaguchi was asked, at the end of the night, if having herself and Kerrigan, the more elegant of the favorites, in first and second place meant a victory for artistry over the fast-approaching gymnastic-like athleticism in skating.

"We both did a triple lutz-double toe combination," Yamaguchi answered, pleasantly but sternly. "I wouldn't say that was just artistry."

On the other hand, pure athleticism took a beating, since Ito and Harding are the only women in the world to have successfully landed the three-and-a-half rotation triple axel in competition, and neither did so last night.

Harding tried the axel and, as she had done twice in last month's U.S. championships, fell flat. "I think she tried too hard on the jump," said Harding's coach, Dody Teachman. "She got a little nervous and tried to make it too big. She tried to land it before she had come down out of the air yet."

Ito, meanwhile, decided only yesterday to replace her triple axel-double toeloop combination with a slightly less difficult triple lutz-double toe -- and fell. Perhaps out of indecisiveness. In yesterday morning's last brief pre-competition practice session, Bonaly, apparently trying to intimidate Ito, did a backflip in Ito's line of vision, as Ito was skating into a triple attempt.

When Ito consequently was not herself last night, it drastically changed the show. "She broke my heart, Ito," said Mary Scotvold, half of Kerrigan's husband-wife coaching team. "Midori's a wonderful, wonderful girl. You just don't want that to happen."

Finally, the two French skaters -- Hubert with a quick, clean, funky routine, and Bonaly with bounce and flexibility which offset her uneven skating -- brought down the curtain of the evening's performance. Tomorrow, the whole thing will reach critical mass.

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