Soon hard questions were being asked: How long before skating is like gymnastics, a sport overrun by kiddie stars with tiny bodies? And what inducements might an agent offer a 12-year-old? All the Happy Meals she can eat?
At last the hype stopped. Lipinski finished second to 15-year-old Sydne Vogel of Anchorage in the juniors. And 24-year-old Tonia Kwiatkowski, the eventual third-place women's finisher, beat Bobek and Kwan in the 2⅔-minute short program (good for one third of the final score).
There were no children in the men's competition—Eldredge, of South Chatham, Mass., and second-place finisher Scott Davis, of Great Falls, Mont., are both 23—but there was plenty of angst. Davis, last year's national champion, came to Providence in a slump that dated from his flops in the Olympics and the world championships. The more he and coach Kathy Casey strain to explain his collapses, the more it sounds like stage fright. In most of Davis's competitions now, panicky thoughts seize him as he awaits his turn on the ice. "It'll be something like, What if Eldredge hits his triple Axel?" Davis says.
Thinking that more performance experience might help him conquer the problem, Casey bade Davis to work a 60-city, 70-show tour last spring and summer. When Davis had completed the tour and was still floundering, Casey decided on one more elaborate strategy: twice-weekly mock competitions, complete with warmups, loudspeaker introductions, costumes and judges. "I was at a loss," Casey admits.
Davis's first-place standing as he headed into Saturday's free-skating program was only momentarily exhilarating. He grew more "panicky"—Casey's word—as his closing performance ground on, spinning out of a triple flip, putting his hand to the ice, landing a triple Axel and trimming a triple Lutz to a double. Eldredge, meanwhile, lit out with a stylish long program studded with eight triple jumps. After nearly quitting the sport in 1993, Eldredge has clawed back this close. "I don't think I ever wanted anything in my life more than I wanted this," he said.
Now Eldredge has his title, Bobek has hers, and notice has been served. When it comes to U.S. nationals, expect the unexpected, and watch out for the brass-knuckled, steel-nerved comeback kids.