Meno-Sand keep alive medal bid FIGURE SKATING


BIRMINGHAM, England -- Love blossomed in Albertville, France. The engagement came in Lillehammer, Norway. The wedding is planned for July in Cleveland.

For Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, the route to the altar has been anything but traditional. The Winter Olympics has been their backdrop. The sport of pairs' figure skating has been their passion.

But before their wedding day, the American skaters have this one little competition to complete: The World Championships.

Last night, dressed like a bride and groom and skating to Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz," Meno and Sand finished fifth in the pairs' short program. The performance, glittering, charismatic, but ultimately, short on technical substance, still gave them an outside chance to claim a bronze in tonight's long program final, worth two-thirds of the overall score.

"Look, the situation coming into this event was this: There were ++ five or six teams who could be fighting for a medal," Sand said. "We considered ourselves as one of those teams. For us, it was kind of skate your best and go for it."

But there is still a long way to go to reach the top in an event where love -- and lovers -- dominate.

Leading the field are a ballerina and a linebacker, Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny, of the Czech Republic. The pair, also engaged, and coached by Russian skating legend Irina Rodnina, were nearly flawless in their 2-minute, 40-second routine, punctuating their performance to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" with side-by-side triple toe loops.

The only thing missing was a death scene.

"[The judges] are not prepared for me to die on the ice in our story," Kovarikova said. "I think it is better not to lose marks than to do the ending."

Reigning European champions Mandy Woetzel and Ingo Steuer of Germany were second. Defending world champions Yevgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov were third, while their Russian teammates Marina Eltsova and Andrey Bushkov were fourth.

If you're keeping track in the love department, Woetzel and Steuer are ex-lovers and Shishkova and Naumov are engaged.

For the Americans, this is still pleasant company. A top-five finish would give the U.S. three pairs places at next year's World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta. A medal, would, of course, be even more spectacular. It was Sand, with his former partner, Natasha Kuchiki, who last claimed a pairs' bronze for the Americans in 1991 in Munich.

But a lot has happened to American pairs' skating since then. Meno and Sand ditched their former partners and joined up with one another. The reverberations echoed through their California

training rink -- and the sport.

"I spent a half-hour discussing the pros and cons of the split, and at the end of that discussion, it became obvious that they wouldn't listen," said their coach, John Nicks. "So, I supported the change."

"They've obviously gotten a lot better than most people forecast," he added. "They developed their certain style and imprint. Their program is unique. They have their own individual look."

Matching strawberry blonds -- he's a head taller than she -- the couple is elegantly packaged, with show-skating grace and style, plus a boost of confidence.

"It's very reassuring to know that if you don't skate your best, the world is not coming to an end," Sand said. "Your partner still cares about you."

"We just skate how we honestly feel about each other," Meno said.

The couple may not yet have the technical gifts to leap to the top of the skating pyramid, but they are making extraordinary progress, adding --es of speed and artistry to their programs.

"Their first year together, they skated as a pair team," said American Kyoko Ina, who was 10th with her partner, Jason Dungjen. "Now, they skate as one."

Familiar dance numbers

It was the same old story in the compulsory dance, with a bunch of results that could have been mailed in. Oksana Gritschuk and Yevgeny Platov, of Russia, the reigning Olympic and world champions, placed first, Finland's Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko were second, and France's Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy were third.

As usual, Americans Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur claimed their customary 11th-place spot, where they were also penciled in during the 1993 championships.

There are two more phases of the ice dance. And there is not going to be much more movement.

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