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E.M. Swift
March 02, 1992
With grace and skill, Kristi Yamaguchi skated circles around the competition to strike gold
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March 02, 1992


With grace and skill, Kristi Yamaguchi skated circles around the competition to strike gold

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For the first time all week, she looked nervous. As Kristi Yamaguchi waited office while the medals podium was erected and the flags were furled in place, the 20-year-old from Fremont, Calif., was wringing her hands like a schoolgirl. "Do I have to say anything?" she asked the smiling, beatific Nancy Kerrigan, her roommate of the past two weeks. Kerrigan shrugged. It was her first Olympics, too. Who knew? Who cared? Enjoy. Pecking around the screen that shielded the skaters from the spectators, Midori Ito located the Japanese cheering section, each of its members carrying a small flag emblazoned with the rising sun. Ito waved at them excitedly, the happiest she had looked since arriving in Albertville. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Nearby, Yamaguchi's coach, Christy Ness, also was beaming, and tears were overfilling her eyes. She saw a friend in the crowd and mouthed, "No triple Axel!" He answered by giving the thumb like a baseball umpire: Triple Axel! Yerrrr out!

Then a voice thundered through the arena, signaling the moment that Yamaguchi had been waiting for, dreaming about, since she was a five-year-old carrying a certain special doll with her everywhere—a Dorothy Hamill doll, if you can believe that, a miniature replica of the last American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating, in 1976.

"La médaille d'or...."

Yamaguchi, trepidation and hesitation in her face, turned to Kerrigan standing behind her. Was this really happening? Laughing, Kerrigan gave her the go-ahead nod and nudged her toward the ice.

Yamaguchi had not expected to win the gold, if at all, until the Lillehammer Games, in 1994. This time she was supposed to enjoy her first Olympics, skate well and collect whatever medal the gals with the triple Axels left behind. Kristi and her parents were adamant that she attend the opening ceremony, which was held 11 days before she would compete. If she burned out from too many days in the Olympic Village, training under a media microscope, so be it. "But if she misses the opening ceremony and skates badly," asked Ness, "what are you left with for your Olympic experience?"

So Yamaguchi had it both ways—enjoying the Games and skating beautifully to boot—and completed a whirlwind 11 months, in which she won her first world championship, her first U.S. national title and the Olympic gold medal. The gals with the triple Axels turfed, as the ski jumpers in the athletes' village like to say when a competitor wipes out, and the medal they left behind was gold.

This was a competition incorrectly billed as the athletes versus the artists. The designated athletes were Ito and Tonya Harding of Portland, Ore., the only two women who have landed a 3½-revolution triple Axel in competition. The so-called artists were Yamaguchi and Kerrigan who, to put the matter in perspective, both had more difficult technical programs planned in Albertville than did American gold medal hopeful Debi Thomas—unquestionably an athlete—in the Calgary Games four years ago. Yamaguchi and Kerrigan were plenty athletic. They were just minus the one jump: the triple Axel. And as it turned out, they weren't alone in that.

"Kristi doesn't lift weights to be called fluff," Ness said after the competition, bristling at the athlete-versus-artist theme. She cited the free-weight program Yamaguchi has undertaken in the past two years—repetition squats and power cleans twice a week—as a factor in her rise to the top: "Getting stronger helped her. It gave her confidence and body control. Kristi trains like an athlete."

Harding, conversely, trains like an artist—temperamentally. In January, after her dismal third-place showing at the nationals, where, according to her choreographer, Barbara Flowers, Harding was "fat and undertrained," she returned to Portland and skated without her coach, Dody Teachman, until two weeks before the Olympics. Why? Who knows. She did lose nine pounds and eventually resumed training with Teachman. But Harding seems to think she has all the answers in her stubborn 21-year-old head. It was her idea, for instance, to wait until three days before the short program to arrive in Albertville—a nine-hour time difference from Portland—claiming, "I've never had jet lag in my life."

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