In this topsy-turvy world where even astronauts land upside down, there is something almost reassuring about the predictability of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. From the moment the first blade struck ice at the splendid Civic Center in downtown Providence last week, there was not a ripple of doubt that 17-year-old Dorothy Hamill, runner-up last year to Janet Lynn, would win first place and go on to represent her country in the world championships next month in Munich. There was scarcely less doubt that chunky Juli McKinstry, a whirling dervish from Colorado Springs, would place second, or that statuesque Kath Malmberg would take third, no matter how often she fell on her axel. It was ordained, figure skating being a waiting game where princess follows queen in a most orderly fashion.
Hamill had started her organized glide to the nationals at the age of eight, collected awards instead of stamps and qualified for promotions in events that would put the rest of us in traction. Most of the credit for her accomplishment belongs to Coach Gus Lussi, who eventually turned her over to Carlo Fassi, a coach who had pretty good luck several years ago with a skater named Peggy Fleming. There were faint mutterings after the competition began that Hamill, though her classic style resembles Fleming's, has lost some of her fire under Fassi's balletic approach. Still, she was the logical successor to Janet Lynn, who abdicated to join the Follies, and Dorothy was in the enviable position of having no one to depose.
Early in the week she placed first in compulsory school figures, those horrendous basics, and was genuinely surprised when the judges refused to take note of her erratic third figure. Perhaps the judges' oversight gave Hamill confidence in the next event, the compulsory program of six prescribed free-skating moves, which is a two-minute exhibition of technical skill. She leapt onto the ice, matching the tempo of Stravinsky's Firebird. Her assurance and speed made the competitors who had preceded her appear to have skated in slow motion. Her high, clean double lutz came not after but out of a dazzling display of footwork so neatly accomplished that the judges might have missed it. Carlo Fassi had advised friends to watch closely for it. Most skaters telegraph such moves; Hamill does not. Spectators throughout the arena reacted to the sheer power of the move and first applauded, then pounded the metal rails and seats. Rather sadly, it was to be Hamill's only real triumph during the competition.
From there on the audience, which should have been cheering the princess, suddenly became charmed by an ethereal young lady-in-waiting named Roberta Loughland, who displayed amazing grace in long-legged moves. When the judges gave Loughland conservative scores, her new fans hissed their discontent, seemingly unaware that it was not Roberta's turn to be queen, not yet, not this year. A figure-skating crowd is often like the man who knows nothing about art but knows what he likes.
Outside, on the snowy streets of Providence the temperature dropped to a raw 18°, but that was another world. Inside the colorful arena, festive with bunting and banners, all was a shivery mixture of skaters' illusions and spectators' delusions, nurtured by the glittering backdrop and magic oval within which figures glided on blue-tinted ice. The crowd ebbed and flowed with each event. Parents were inclined to attend only those competitions in which their darlings appeared. Spills in practice sessions, as tension grew, produced one hairline fracture, a strained tendon and a torn ligament. "If your parents have sacrificed a lot," one skater said, "and you break something, you feel terrible. There goes your $5,000 axel."
The arena was sold out for the final two days of the competition, which featured the senior ladies' and senior men's free-skating events. Defending champion Gordon McKellen Jr. was obviously going to be unbeatable. Child of the famous skating clown Tuffy McKellen, Gordie, at 20, is a master of technique. What is sometimes more important, he has inherited his father's charisma, the ability to draw the audience down onto the ice with him as he performs. His practice sessions were as loudly applauded as his championship performances.
Dorothy Hamill, on the other hand, practiced almost unnoticed. The fire in her compulsory program, which had sparked the audience, seemed to have evaporated. "This is a terrible strain on the kids," her father said. "Dorothy just told me to go away and leave her alone."
The afternoon before the main event Tenley Albright appeared. Then Janet Lynn was discovered sitting with a few friends far back in the arena. "I was on my way to New Haven with the Follies when I discovered the train was going to stop at Providence, so I just got off," she said. The queen had returned to see the princess crowned, perhaps to wish her well.
Hamill's number was scheduled last, by which time the audience was clearly in the mood for an upset. It had nothing against Dorothy, as pretty and skillful a brunette as ever triple-toed her way to the top, but once the Loughland girl had stirred the crowd, it became noticeably partisan. Roberta skated out in a simple white costume that almost made the other more colorfully arrayed girls look like shady ladies. The judges once again gave Loughland only respectable scores, and again the spectators evinced displeasure. By the time little Priscilla Hill appeared, they were in full revolt against skating's system.
Priscilla is 12 years old, on the young side of 12 at that, but in terms of skating skills this "senior lady" has no equal. Coached by former national champ (1963) Tommy Litz, she has so outdistanced her competitors who are still struggling up the novice and junior ladders that the U.S. Figure Skating Association doesn't quite know what to do with her. With their finely orchestrated game plan, their tacit understandings about who should be ready for what when, their carefully laid-out chessboard on which pieces apparently may move but not jump, Priscilla Hill is a problem. Litz is not worried. "I wouldn't want her to go to a World championship yet," he said. "She still needs seasoning. Next year perhaps." By that time frail Priscilla may have stopped looking like a newborn kitten.
When she emerged in full view of the audience, it was as though Tinker Bell had somehow escaped from a Walt Disney drawing board. Priscilla's dainty leaps and bounds drew the loudest applause of the evening; her flying camel spin, though it does not yet fly much more than the length of a coffee table, was perfect in style and form. When she had finished sparkling, dancing and spinning all over the rink, the judges handled the problem in the only way they knew how, with scores no higher than 5.4 (out of a possible 6). Boos and catcalls were so loud an outsider might have suspected that a hockey game was in progress, with the whole kit and caboodle of the Rhode Island Reds being sent to the penalty box.
Then it was time for Dorothy Hamill, queen-elect, to clinch her crown. It soon became apparent that whatever was bothering her still festered. She seemed almost listless, a lonely figure circling the rink as if in search of something temporarily mislaid. As she left, there was polite applause, and then a few gasps of disbelief as scores of 5.8 and 5.9 were awarded her performance. "It has to be done that way," said an old hand at judges' antics. "If we send her to the World with a bunch of 5.5s, the Russians will automatically give her low scores because we did. Besides, she's probably just having an off night."
True enough. Sometimes even the astronauts land upside down.