After all the hankies were wrung out and all the teardrops had fallen, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last week in Minneapolis belonged to a 20-year-old dynamo from Portland, Ore., named Tonya Harding. In one energized four-minute free skating program, Harding leapt from nowhere into history as she became the first American woman to land a triple Axel in competition.
Harding won her first national title by outshining what was one of the best women's fields in years—in the U.S. or anywhere else—despite the absence of three-time national and defending world champion Jill Trenary, who withdrew before the competition because of an infection in her right ankle. "It was, like, open up the gates and let out the wild animals," said Harding's choreographer, Barbara Flowers. "All the girls came here really well trained."
The beneficiary of Trenary's ill fortune was expected to be 19-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi, from Fremont, Calif., who had finished second to Trenary in each of the last two years. Last spring, Yamaguchi gave up pairs skating—she and partner Rudy Galindo were 1989 and '90 U.S. champions—to focus on singles. Yamaguchi's hand was further strengthened because compulsory figures, the weakest part of her skating, are now a separate event. At the same time, she moved to Edmonton to train with her coach, Christy Kjarsgaard Ness, and began lifting (very, very small) weights for strength. "She's stronger physically," Ness said. "And she's matured."
Few people had reckoned on the sudden emergence of Harding, an impressive jumper who had placed seventh, third and fifth, respectively, in the last three nationals. Still, Harding is fiercely competitive, and she has an arsenal of triple jumps at her disposal that is the envy of every woman skater in the world, save the wondrously athletic Midori Ito of Japan. Since 1989 Harding's repertoire has included the triple Axel, a 3½-revolution jump in which the skater takes off from a forward outside edge, but she had never before, in four tries, landed it in competition. There was no dishonor in that. The only woman who ever had successfully completed a triple Axel in competition was Ito. "She's been working on it a long time," said Nancy Kerrigan, who finished a strong third in the competition. "I figured she was going to hit it in one of these programs."
February 25, 1991
So did Harding, particularly after she nailed seven of eight triple Axels during practice sessions in Minneapolis. Besides, her horoscope—she's a Scorpio—promised she would be perfect all week, "and I really believe in all that," she said, following the competition. After finishing a strong second to Yamaguchi in the original program last Thursday, Harding huddled with her coach, Dody Teachman, and they decided she would go for the triple Axel in last Saturday's free skating program. But they kept the decision to themselves. "For her to land it, she's got to be relaxed," said Teachman, who has coached Harding the past 3½ years. "So we tried to stay away from the media and not make a big deal out of it."
Yamaguchi skated her four-minute free skating program first and was mesmerizing. She touched down only once, falling while attempting a triple Salchow. But her marks were high: 5.7's and 5.8's for technical merit, 5.8's and 5.9's for artistic impression.
Harding took the ice without a great deal to lose. If she landed the triple Axel and skated cleanly, she might beat Yamaguchi. If she missed it and didn't completely fall apart, it was likely she would remain in second place, since Kerrigan, too, had fallen during her free skating program. Forty-five seconds into her routine, Harding stroked the length of the ice, coiled and sprang to an improbable height. Her pony tail became a blur as she spun. Upon landing, she cried out, "Yes!" The crowd, recognizing history in this 5'1", 105-pound package of fist-clenching grit, roared. By the time her program had ended, Harding had landed seven triples; they came in six different varieties, everything from loop to Lutz. The standing ovation lasted for 45 seconds, and seven of the nine judges gave Harding higher scores than they had given Yamaguchi.
The normally placid Yamaguchi was in tears over her third-straight second-place finish. "You give it your all, and you still don't win it," said Ness. "What do you do? Hopefully it makes you tougher. You come back meaner."
The men's competition pitted Christopher Bowman, who won the title in 1989, against Todd Eldredge, who became the champion in '90, after Bowman had to withdraw because of a back injury. Asked which of them he thought the crowd would pull for, Eldredge, who trains in San Diego but was raised in Chatham, Mass., threw down the competitive gauntlet by saying, "I think they'll cheer for the better skater. And that's me."
Bowman refused to pick it up. "I've never seen myself as an athlete who had the mentality of win, win, win," he said. "The killer instinct sometimes propels people to be their very best. I think Todd understands that better than me."
Late last summer, Bowman switched from his longtime coach, Frank Carroll, to Toller Cranston and choreographer Ellen Burka. When asked about the change before the start of these championships, Bowman surprised both the assembled press and his coaches by sobbing uncontrollably as he tried to answer. After 18 years together, he and Carroll, it seems, no longer speak to each other.
Cranston's first order of business after Bowman joined him was to get his new charge to lose 15 pounds. Then he needed to work on reestablishing Bowman's credibility with figure skating's judges and officials, most of whom had long ago tired of the juvenile antics, on ice and off, of Bowman the Showman, the self-proclaimed "Hans Blinker from hell."
"We had to turn the cheeseburger into filet mignon," Cranston said. "That meant serious music, serious skating, serious colors. For his two programs, we have dipped him in black."
When Bowman took the ice for Friday's original program, his face was so pale and the rest of him—from his dyed hair to his skates—was so black that he looked a little like Grandpa Munster. But he skated like the Bowman of 1989. Despite not trying a triple Axel combination, which, along with those 15 pounds, he had somehow lost along the way, Bowman outpointed Eldredge and the rest of the field in the eyes of both the judges and the crowd. Eldredge, looking wooden-legged and unnerved, was second.
In Sunday's free skating competition, which counted for two thirds of the scoring, Eldredge's killer instinct reemerged. Skating first, Bowman was convincing, if slow, during a program that was almost error-free. He landed the only triple Axel he tried and kept his trademark muggings and preenings to a minimum—succumbing to temptation just twice, once in front of a judge, the other time in front of a TV camera.
Bowman's marks were mostly 5.8's. As Eldredge waited to skate, he felt relaxed and confident, even though he knew he had little room for error. He opened by landing a jump more challenging than anything Bowman had tried, a triple Axel-triple toe combination. After that, he seemed to grow in both stature and poise. Eldredge, who has been criticized for appearing too mechanical on the ice, has tried to improve his style by taking ballet lessons for the past year, and they have clearly had an effect. Late in the 4½-minute program, a second triple Axel—he had seven flawless triples—cemented the win for Eldredge.
Still, Bowman could skate away from these nationals with his dipped-in-ink head held high. He may have been defeated, but he'd also been declowned.