Nor had she competed in an Olympics or practiced on the Albertville ice. When she struggled in her first two days of practice, bursting into tears after a hard fall the day before the short program, it was clear Harding had cut the time too close.
Yamaguchi and Kerrigan, who were rooming together in the Village, had the opposite problem: how to avoid going stale from inactivity during the first week and a half of the Games, when they were on the ice only 1½ hours a day, and how to cope with the mounting pressure? Yamaguchi escaped the spotlight by leaving for three days to train in Mégève, 35 minutes away. It was there, away from the bustle and the judges' watchful eyes, that she hit her peak and found her center. "She skated beautifully in Mégève," recalled Ness. "Prettier than anything I've seen. A step above. I sat her down and said, 'That's all. You don't have to try to do anything more than what you just did.' It was so beautiful, it didn't matter if a panel of judges put her second. That's what I told her. If you skate like that, it doesn't matter."
Kerrigan, 22, had the flu her first three days in Albertville, so going stale was less a concern than regaining her form. "Getting sick may have helped," said Evy Scotvold, who along with his wife, Mary, coaches Kerrigan. "She stayed fresh."
The fact that her training partner, Paul Wylie, won the men's silver medal in the performance of his career also helped Kerrigan, who was a surprise bronze medalist in last year's world championships. She trains with Wylie in Acton, Mass., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. In addition to being coached by the Scotvolds, there is much that they have in common: When Nancy is having a bad practice in Acton, she will plead with the Scotvolds to let Paul and her work on their pair-skating routine—it's a hoot—which they perform in exhibitions; Wylie and Kerrigan share a house on Cape Cod in the summer; they share the same sponsor, Lisa Webster from Princeton, N.J.; and during the Olympics their parents were all staying in the same house.
Said Wylie, who spent much of last week accompanying Kerrigan to and from practices, speed skating events and press conferences: "What I did made her feel like anything was possible."
Anything—perhaps even beating Ito, who was the consensus choice to win the gold. When Ito arrived in Albertville, six days before the short program, she looked unbeatable. At her first practice she landed three different triple-triple combinations with such ease, such power, that coaches in the stands were burying their eyes in their hands. "The only man I've ever seen outjump her," said Evy Scotvold in near-awe, "is Brian Boitano."
But as the competition grew nearer, Ito began to struggle. She started missing her triple Axel as often as she was landing it, and soon was having difficulty with her other jumps, too. The childlike joy that was once such an appealing element to her skating disappeared. It was replaced by the weight of tension. Of all the women, the pressure on Ito was greatest. The only holdover from the top skaters at the 1988 Games, in which she finished fifth, and the world champion in '89, Ito sought to fulfill the expectations of all Japan, which hadn't had a gold medal winner in the Winter Olympics in 20 years.
So there they were, four skaters vying for three medals. Plus a wild card from the host country, Surya Bonaly, the two-time European champion, who distinguished herself by her abhorrent behavior in practice on the day of the short program. Bonaly performed a back flip—an illegal trick in amateur competition—within a few yards of Ito while the Japanese star was practicing. Ito missed her next jump. "It was intimidating, whether intentional or not," said the International Skating Union's Ben Wright, who, as referee of the women's competition, stepped in and forbade Bonaly from doing any further back flips in practice. "These skaters have enough problems without this kind of bashing going on."
Problems like staying on their feet. In the Feb. 19 short program, which accounted for one third of the scoring, the two most stylish skaters, Yamaguchi and Kerrigan, performed flawlessly and finished one-two. The two "athletes" turfed. Harding overrotated a triple Axel combination and crashed, finishing sixth in the short program. Two nights later, she attempted another triple Axel in her free-skate and looked like she had been bucked off a horse. Still, Harding skated well enough to finish fourth overall. "If we'd been here a few days earlier, it would've given us a chance to get over her jet lag—even though I know Tonya never gets jet lag," said Teachman. "This is a helluva time to be scared and doubting herself, and that's exactly what she did."
Ito, too, skated the short as if she were afraid of failing. Just before she took the ice, she and her coach, Machiko Yamada, decided to replace her triple Axel combination with the easier triple Lutz combination, which both Yamaguchi and Kerrigan had landed earlier in the evening. It was the safe move. "I have been training Midori many years on a day-to-day basis, and I have never seen her fall on this jump," Yamada said later "Never. Sometimes she stumbles. But fall? Never."