In trials, battle is for No. 2


DETROIT -- Who's No. 2?

That is the question, and rallying cry, of the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, today through Saturday at Joe Louis Arena.

Brian Boitano, making his return to Olympic-caliber competition, and Nancy Kerrigan, a reigning American champion, are among the favorites expected to glide through the nationals on the way to next month's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

But the suspense isn't who will win in the United States -- it is who will earn the other Olympic qualifying spots.

"There is going to be a real fight," Nicole Bobek of Chicago said. "For second."

And after a dismal 1993 season, the United States is left with its fewest Olympic berths since ice dancing became a medal sport in 1976.

Only two men, two women, three pairs and one dance team will go from Detroit to Lillehammer.

"There is going to be a lot of pressure for everyone," Kerrigan said. "Nothing is assured."

Well, almost nothing.

Boitano, the 1988 Olympic men's gold medalist who is back competing after a lucrative professional career, is clearly the best American skater.

He has a sore knee and a perfectionist's nerves, but Boitano should be secure enough to rout a field that includes reigning champion Scott Davis, two-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge and Mark Mitchell, fourth at last year's worlds and the odd man out during the jockeying for the 1992 Olympic berths.

Mitchell has been retooling his style in Italy under the gaze of Carlo Fassi. And Eldredge has refashioned his career after a dismal two years.

The women's competition finds Kerrigan prepared for another championship run. But this time, she hopes to learn from mistakes that led to a fifth-place collapse at last year's world championships.

The woman who couldn't say no to a Life magazine cover and a Northwest Airlines advertising campaign has cut back on her outside commitments and rededicated herself to skating for the fun of it.

The race for second among the women should be intriguing.

There is Tonya Harding, who has endured an ovarian cyst and a telephoned death threat on her way to the nationals. Bobek and Lisa Ervin, a pair of 16-year-olds, are among the sport's rising stars. And then there is Michelle Kwan, 13, an Olympic gold medalist in the making.

In pairs, you can't tell the partners without a divorce decree.

Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval, the spunky waitress and truck driver, have split since winning last year's nationals. Urbanski matched up by fax with Joe Mero, who was with an ice show in Italy. Marval caught Natasha Kuchiki, on the rebound, after Kuchiki was dumped by her previous partner, Todd Sand.

Now Sand and Jenni Meno, partners on and off the ice, are the brightest U.S. hopes after finishing fifth at last year's world championships.

In ice dancing, reigning champions Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur are virtual locks to win the nationals. But they are just as likely to miss the Olympics.

Sur, a Russian national, has been unable to expedite his citizenship status in time for tonight's opening session as

mandated by U.S. Olympic Committee requirements.

Second place, and the Olympic berth, is likely to go to Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow.

NOTES: Gig Siruno of Minnetonka, Minn., retained his national title in compulsory figures last night. Melanie Dupon of Phoenix won her first women's title. Compulsory figures, in which skaters make prescribed patterns on the ice, has become an obscure discipline since being dropped as part of freestyle competition in 1991.


What: 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Where: Joe Louis Arena, Detroit

When: Today through Saturday

At stake: Olympic berths for two women, two men, three pairs and one ice dancing team.

Favorites: Nancy Kerrigan (women). Brian Boitano (men). Jenni Meno and Todd Sand (pairs). Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur (dance).

TV: Channels 13, 7. Thursday, 9-10 p.m. (men); Saturday 8-11 p.m. (women, pairs and dance).

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