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.