Baiul, leg in bandaged, leaves practice early LILLEHAMMER '94


HAMAR, Norway -- Even now, there is uncertainty.

The plot has twisted through practice rinks and courtrooms, tabloid pages and television studios, but finally, tonight, in a 6,600-seat chalet-style ice rink, the most coveted medal at the Winter Olympics will be handed out.

They will skate for the women's figure skating gold at the Winter Olympics.

Nancy Kerrigan, the leader from Stoneham, Mass., will be here.

So will Surya Bonaly of France, in third.

But what of Oksana Baiul, of Ukraine, the child star and reigning world champion who is currently second?

Yesterday, she received a cut on her right shin in a high-speed practice collision with Germany's Tanja Szewczenko.

Both skaters attended their scheduled practice this morning. Baiul's right shin was wrapped with a bandage, and after skating part of her program, she left the ice about halfway through the session.

Baiul told a television crew later that her back hurt.

"We are hopeful that she will skate," said Ludmila Mikhaylovskaya, head of the Ukrainian skating federation. "She really wants to skate."

Szewczenko said she felt "better. Only my shoulder and hip are sore."

Yesterday's collision sounded like a car accident. They were moving backward near the boards, each ssetting up a lutz jump, Baiul, coming from the left side of the ice, Szewczenko coming from the right. And holding the center was Kerrigan, performing the opening minute of her free skating routine as Neil Diamond music echoed through the nearly empty Olympic Amphitheater.

Suddenly, Baiul and Szewczenko realized they were on the same course, and each turned toward the center to avoid the crash.

But there was no way out.

They collided at the hips. Baiul was staggered, the toe pick of her left skate slashing her right shin. Szewczenko went down, gasping for air, tears pouring down her face.

Quickly, Katarina Witt scooted over, first steadying Baiul, who wandered off the ice with a dazed look on her face and a stain of blood on her right stocking. And then Witt lifted the sobbing Szewczenko like she was a doll, racing her to the boards.

And carrying on, not even missing a step of her routine, was Kerrigan.

The 1 1/2 -inch wound on Baiul's right shin required three stitches to close. And she strained her back, potentially a more serious handicap for a skater whose very strength is her flexibility.

"The cut is not so deep," said Dr. Gunnar Hattevig, who treated Baiul. "She was tough, very tough. She was calm. But she was crying a little."

Szewczenko, the German champion, fifth overall, briefly returned the ice, felt nauseated, and left. Despite a sore hip, she is expected to skate tonight.

It was yet another astonishing plot twist in this sport, which has been overwhelmed the past seven weeks with melodrama and court drama.

But tonight, there is the simplicity of a skating event.

Even Tonya Harding and her legal travails are overshadowed. Here, she is not a suspect in the conspiracy to club her rival Kerrigan, Jan. 6. Here, she is simply just another skater, sitting 10th, out of contention.

This, finally, is about three women with diverse styles and backgrounds in pursuit of one gold.

There is Kerrigan, the daughter of working-class parents whose graceful style often overshadows her fierce determination.

"After she was attacked, there was desperation," said her coach, Evy Scotvold. "She has great resolve and she has shown that."

She has displayed her mental toughness by grinding out one flawless practice routine after another. She has brushed aside the physical damage of the Jan. 6 attack to regain her leaping ability. And she has methodically worked her way back to the Olympics.

Now, she faces her greatest test, trying to show the world that she has overcome the fear that once paralyzed her in previous long programs.

A year ago, she was leading the World Championships after the technical program, but she sagged badly in the free skate to finish fifth.

"This will be easy for her," Scotvold said. "Before, if things went wrong, she would panic. Now, she'll fight through it."

There is Baiul, with a story of personal heartbreak and competitive fire. She never knew her father, at 13 her mother died of ovarian cancer, her first coach fled to the west, and only when she moved some 12 hours from Denpropetrovsk to Odessa, did she find a home and a coach.

Her link with skater Viktor Petrenko and coach Galina Zmievskaya is a study in inspiration and family. They care for her, she charms them, together they have turned a tragic situation into a family saga.

"She is such a little girl," Petrenko said. "For her, there is a lot of pressure. She is only 16 and she is a world champion."

When people in skating speak of Baiul, though, they talk in almost mystical terms of a skater who could play the Bolshoi.

"Last year, she was like a child-woman, this year she is like a woman-child. That comes from inside. Sometimes, she isn't even conscious of what she does," said Linda Leaver, the coach of Brian Boitano.

Annick Gailhaguet, a French coach, said that Baiul has the long neck of a ballerina and the wide-eyed innocence of a child.

"Oksana has something a coach can't teach in skating," she said. "She has this natural movement of the face. The arms are smooth. I prefer this small, crazy thing of Baiul."

And there is Bonaly, a Frenchwoman adopted by counter-culture parents, raised on a macrobiotic diet that included bird seed, turned from tumbler to full-time skater at age 12, and transformed into an artistic champion in the past year.

"She is the best physical performer that we have," said Gailhaguet, who once coached Bonaly. "She is all muscle. And she has a strong, strong mind. I can tell you, she will not miss her jumps. She doesn't mind the pressure."

Gailhaguet said what Bonaly possesses is a Zen-like view of life.

"She has a special way of thinking of life," she said. "It is very secret. She and her mother can speak in another language. They have special signs. When she goes on the ice, her mother tells her, 'Gumba,' that means, 'go for it, fight.' "

Bonaly may have the fight, but she doesn't have the style to match either Kerrigan or Baiul.

"The ice does not flow to Surya," Leaver said.

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