RED HOT A PAIR OF FLAWLESS PERFORMANCES BY MICHELLE KWAN AND TODD ELDREDGE HELPED THE U.S. RULE THE WORLDS

April 01, 1996

JUST WHEN you started to suspect that American figure skating
had gone soft as cheesecake from overexposure and a surplus of
bucks, from too many bogus competitions and too few hours of
practice, along comes a world championship like the one held
last week in Edmonton, a city where March comes in like a lion
and goes out like a polar bear. While temperatures outside
plunged below zero to welcome the vernal equinox, 24-year-old
Todd Eldredge and 15-year-old Michelle Kwan heated things up
inside the Edmonton Coliseum, skating with the controlled fire
that was thought to be beyond Kwan's years and Eldredge's reach.
To have to be perfect, and then be perfect, is a rare thing in
skating. But that's exactly the challenge these two met. The
result is that for the first time since 1986, when Brian Boitano
and Debi Thomas reigned, the U.S. has world champions in both
men's and ladies' singles.

It was, by any measure, a terrific week for U.S. skaters. In
pairs the husband-and-wife team of Jenni Meno and Todd Sand won
their second consecutive bronze, coming from behind by skating
cleanly on a night when most couples were dropping like flies
off a bug light.

Then there was the continued success of Rudy Galindo, who at the
ripe age of 26 was competing in his first world championships in
singles. The surprise winner at the U.S. nationals two months
ago in his hometown of San Jose, Galindo tried to fend off the
weight of everyone's burgeoning expectations by saying that his
goal at the worlds was to finish in the top 10. Then he found a
better way to conquer his nerves: Obliterate them.
Discombobulate them. Roller coaster them into submission. Before
both the short and the long programs, Galindo, with an entourage
of supporters, headed to the amusement park rides inside the
West Edmonton Mall and rode the Zipper, the Mindbender and the
Drop of Doom until Rudy was the last one standing. Andy Black,
who recently became engaged to Rudy's older sister and coach,
Laura, turned green trying to stay with him. "Aren't you dizzy?"
the operator of the Zipper asked Galindo when he went back for
the umpteenth time.

"No, because I'm a skater," Galindo replied. "I spin."

He certainly does that. And he jumps, spirals and generally
continues to amaze everyone in the skating community with his
sudden emergence as a world-class star. Any remaining doubts
about that were put to rest during last Thursday's long program,
which U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) president Morry
Stillwell called "the damnedest men's event I've seen in my
entire life." Galindo held his own as he, Eldredge, Elvis Stojko
of Canada and Ilia Kulik of Russia played can-you-top-this with
one another's free programs. Two-time defending champion Stojko,
who had put himself out of gold medal contention by falling
during the short program, landed the most gorgeous quad-double
combination that had ever been done at the worlds. But Galindo
held on to the bronze by nailing his eight triple jumps.
"Nationals was more magical," Galindo said, "but I proved here I
can be consistent. The memories of winning in San Jose will
always be there, but I've discovered there's more within me to
give."

Not so with Eldredge, who put every bit of himself on the ice
for the first time in his career, revealing a package that few
believed he possessed. After years of flirting with greatness,
then shying away from it, Eldredge finally seems to understand
what it takes to win. A two-time national champion by age 19,
Eldredge was the heir apparent to former U.S. Olympic champs
Boitano and Scott Hamilton--until he suffered a back injury in
1992 that sent him into a three-year tailspin. When Eldredge's
health returned, his confidence went AWOL, resulting in a
10th-place finish at the 1992 Olympics. His career bottomed out
when he came in sixth at the nationals in 1993, after which he
left the sport for a few months. Weakened by a fever, he failed
to make the '94 Olympic team, but while watching the Lillehammer
Games on television, he discovered a hunger he had never known.
In 1995 Eldredge gave notice that he was back. He won the
nationals a third time, then finished second at the worlds
behind Stojko.

Still, Eldredge needed to take one more step, and Galindo
provided the kick in the tail that forced him into it. "I have
to thank Rudy for beating me at this year's nationals," Eldredge
said. "It made me go back and train and get my act together."

Eldredge canceled plans between the nationals and the worlds to
do a U.S exhibition tour and backed away from an agreement to
compete in St. Petersburg, Russia; in doing so, he gave up more
than $100,000. Instead, he trained four hours a day with his
longtime coach, Richard Callaghan. The sacrifice paid off when,
in the short program, Eldredge and the 18-year-old Kulik were
the only two skaters to land cleanly a triple Axel-triple toe
combination. Not coincidentally, they stood atop the standings
(with Kulik first). "It's the first time all year I've landed
the triple-triple in the short program," Eldredge said.

Eldredge, who had not even attempted a triple-triple combination
at the nationals, landed two more of them early in his long
program, then relaxed and skated with a speed and passion that
few had seen in him before. His jumps--eight triples in all--were
high and straight, his spins tight, his emotions raw. It was as
technically demanding a performance as had ever been tried by a
U.S. skater, and he pulled it off without a glitch. When the
talented Kulik attempted only one combination jump, the judges
had a razor-thin margin on which to base their choice. When the
votes were tallied, Eldredge had won five of the nine judges,
Kulik three. The promise that he had shown early in his career
finally had been fulfilled. "I had to always believe that
someday it would happen," Eldredge said after hanging the gold
medal around the neck of his tearful mother, Ruth. "That's the
best I've ever skated."

In the women's singles, the early attention was focused on
Japan's Midori Ito, the 1989 champion, who at 26 was making her
first appearance at the worlds in five years. Her motivation for
returning was something less than crystal clear--Ito is as
guarded with her words as Japan is with its rice market--but it
is widely believed that she has been pressured into readying
herself for the 1998 Nagano Olympics by the Prince Hotels
conglomerate, for which she makes appearances. It may be time to
rethink that plan. Ito can still jump impressively, but she's so
stressed out from the pressure being heaped on her at home and
the attention from abroad that she looks as though she's about
to come unwound. She lost five pounds from her 4'9", 95-pound
frame last week and checked into a hospital in the days before
the short program to receive treatment for anemia. Even so, she
attempted her trademark triple Axel in combination during last
Friday's short and crash-landed it, a brave but perhaps
foolhardy strategy. It has been said many times: You cannot win
a title doing the short program, but you can lose one. Ito never
recovered her form, two-footing the triple Axel in her long
program and finishing seventh.

It was left to China's 19-year-old Chen Lu, the defending
champion, to force the best out of Kwan. An ethereal,
long-limbed presence, Chen seems to blow over the ice like a
leaf. After finishing a close second to Kwan in the short
program, Chen elegantly threw down the gauntlet with a
mesmerizing performance last Saturday in which she landed six
triple jumps, including two in combination. That earned her two
perfect 6.0s, the first of her career. As the scores were read
over the public-address system, Kwan, who had not yet skated,
couldn't help but hear them as she and her coach, Frank Carroll,
hid in the flower girls' room, trying to find some peace. "I
thought, Oh, god, I'll have to do a quadruple toe loop to win,"
Kwan said later, joking. "Then I got myself down to earth and
said, Just go for it. Go for everything. Why not?"

Carroll told her that the judges had left a tiny window, and to
believe in herself and her program. Others knew she had to be
perfect, and even that might not be enough. But this young woman
from Torrance, Calif., is a flower with steel inside, and she
was in Edmonton to win. To help persuade judges she was no
longer the little girl they had placed fourth in 1995, Kwan and
Carroll had orchestrated a makeover of her image during the
year. Her ponytail was jettisoned in favor of the braided-bun
look--an elaborate process that involves handweaving her hair
into a tight coil with yarn. Carroll also persuaded Kwan's
parents to allow her to wear eye makeup on the ice. "In the
Chinese-American culture, young girls don't wear makeup. I told
them we're not going to the schoolyard here. If you were in the
ballet performing in front of thousands of people, you'd wear
makeup. It's part of the shtick."

None of which would have helped a whit if Kwan's skating hadn't
also matured, a process that was speeded up when Kwan toured
with Boitano and other professionals last spring. "Great skating
breeds great skating," Carroll said. Poised, assured, steadier
on her landings than Chen, she, too, landed six triple jumps,
two in combination. She, too, was mesmerizing, mature, elegant.
That a 15-year-old should present such an image was almost
beyond belief. Then in the final seconds, Kwan showed the
presence of mind to add a triple toe jump. It was an option she
and Carroll had devised in the event that she settled for a
triple-double combination early in the program instead of the
hoped-for triple-triple. It gave her one more triple than Chen,
a tiny technical edge. The crowd leaped to its feet, and Kwan
burst into tears. "The emotions took over when I realized this
was the world championships and I'd just skated the best I ever
had in my life," she said later. The judges rewarded her with a
pair of 6.0s and seven 5.9s. Kwan had won six judges to Chen's
three, becoming the third-youngest ladies' champion, after Sonia
Henie in 1927 and Oksana Baiul in '93.

No one could remember a world championship in which two women
were each awarded two perfect marks, but everyone agreed they
deserved them. "I never saw two performances like that in my
life," said USFSA chief Stillwell. "For Michelle to add that
jump in the last seconds, that's sport."

There was plenty of that on display last weekend in wintry
Edmonton.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKESKwan's mature appearance and style belied her 15 years. [Michelle Kwan] COLOR PHOTO: BILL EPPRIDGE After years of coming up short, the 24-year-old Eldredge at last showed the stripes of a champion. [Todd Eldredge] COLOR PHOTO: BILL EPPRIDGE The performances at the worlds eased worries that America's skating fortunes may be flagging. [Fans waving American flags]

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