PITTSBURGH -- They are coming from different directions, but figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge are trying to get to the same place.
Kwan, barely 14 years old, is America's top-rated woman, but she has yet to prove it. Eldredge, 23, is a two-time defending national champion, but he wants to prove it again.
They have come to Sudafed Skate America International at the Civic Arena to open the 1994-95 season and prepare for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in February.
No doubt, Kwan will be a solid favorite at the nationals in Providence, R.I., regardless of what happens here, but the circumstances of her No. 1 rating -- which came with the U.S. Figure Skating Association's decision to dethrone 1993 champion Tonya Harding -- will make it a hollow position until she backs it up with a first-place finish.
"I think she has worked her way up the ladder, but she's not the champion of anything," said her coach, Frank Carroll. "She knows what she has to do. She's not defending anything. She's fighting for something.
"When they dethroned Tonya, they could have given the championship to Michelle, but they didn't. But that may be good for us. I think it's a lot easier to fight for something than to defend it."
Kwan turned in a solid performance in her short program last night, standing behind Russian Irina Slutskaya in the field of eight skaters. She faltered on a triple Lutz midway through her performance, and it cost her a chance to go into tonight's long program with the lead.
American ice dancers Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow remained at the top of the standings after the original dance portion of their three-part event.
It is an international competition, so it also is a chance for Kwan and Eldredge to get comfortable with themselves and their place in figure skating's new order.
The "graduation" of several top-name skaters has left a vacuum that both would like to fill. Both finished second at the Goodwill Games in August and hope to follow the U.S. Championships with an appearance in the World Championships at Birmingham, England, in March.
"I'm definitely back on the road to where I was," said Eldredge, who put on a dazzling performance in the short program Thursday to outpoint French showman Philipe Candeloro. "Every time I go out and skate now, I'm feeling more comfortable."
He had to feel right at home after his performance Thursday, which prompted a spirited standing ovation from the audience of 3,500. He performed the compulsory movements flawlessly and emerged as the clear leader of the men's competition.
It was a surprisingly strong performance for an event this early in the season, but the real surprise -- to some -- was that Eldredge chose to come back this season. He could have turned pro and taken advantage of figure skating's commercial explosion, but has returned for a possible third U.S. championship.
"I thought about that for about five minutes," said Eldredge, "but I really don't feel that I've done all that I can do in amateur competition."
He obviously feels that he has a lot left to prove. It has been more than three years since he won back-to-back U.S. championships, and -- though he has enjoyed some lesser triumphs -- there have been injuries and insecurity in between.
1, Elizabeth Punsalan, Sheffield Lake, Ohio, and Jerod Swallow, Northville, Mich., 0.4; 2, Marina Anicina and Gwendal Peizerat, France, 0.8; 3, Elizaveta Stekolnikova and Dmitri Kazarliga, Kazakhstan, 1.2; 4, Kati Winkler and Rene Lohse, Germany, 1.6;
5, Agnes Jacquemard and Alexis Gayet, France, 2.0; 6, Amy Webster, Yarmouth, Maine, and Ron Kravette, Costa Mesa, Calif., 2.4; 7, Marie-France Dubreuil and Tomas Morbacher, Canada, 2.8; 8, Olga Mudrak and Vitaly Baranov, Ukraine, 3.2
Ladies short program
1, Irina Slutskaya, Russia, 0.5; 2, Michelle Kwan, Torrance, Calif., 1.0; 3, Surya Bonaly, France, 1.5; 4, Marina Kielmann, Germany, 2.0;
5, Ludmilia Ivanova, Ukraine, 2.5; 6, Nicole Bobek, Chicago, 3.0; 7, Marie-Pierre Leray, France, 3.5; 8, Angela Derochie, Canada, 4.0.