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It is all so terribly refined—a little blood sport performed to a Beethoven score. Figure skaters get their competitive urge in the cradle, along with mother's milk, and behind the sequined facade of the game are often sharp and cutting rivalries—they don't hone their skate blades for 15 or 20 years for nothing. Last week, amid charges, countercharges and a few verbal slashes, the country's best figure skaters met blade to blade in the national championship in Tulsa. The defending champions, Tim Wood and Janet Lynn, got the trophies and everyone else got Band-Aids.
For Wood it was his third straight U.S. title, and he is now a heavy favorite to defend his world crown successfully next month in Yugoslavia. He is a conservative champion, a master technician who calls himself a human compass and performs with the mechanical precision of one. Because he has done his homework studiously and for a very long time (he has been skating since he was 3), Wood gets top marks in the school figures, that compulsory part of the program in which a skater must prove he knows his basics. But the by-the-book approach that makes him almost faultless in figures sometimes flaws his free skating. In the interpretive half of last week's championship, there were some who felt Wood might be upset by the derring-do of John Misha Petkevich, a Cossack on skates.
"Misha is an artist," an admirer explained. "If he has a good night and a good audience he can be fabulous." Petkevich has never found skating school figures emotionally fulfilling. He has had plenty of opportunity to learn precision—his parents used to arrange for private half-hour lessons and rented a private patch of ice for him when he was 2—but at 20 Misha feels he is only now getting into the groove.
A third-year pre-med student at Harvard, Petkevich razzle-dazzled his way into skating prominence in the 1968 nationals with a free-skating performance that saw him soaring around Philadelphia's Spectrum like a Frisbee. After that he enrolled in Harvard and waxed fat and contented in his Cambridge dorm until his mother arrived from Great Falls, Mont. She was appalled by her son's thickening girth and the institutional food he was eating. Leaving her husband home, Mrs. Petkevich moved to Cambridge, rented an apartment and cooked dietetic meals down to the last cookie crumb for her son. He lost weight but, unfortunately, lost strength, too, and he had a lean 1969 all the way around, never really threatening Wood in competition.
Petkevich showed up at this year's nationals in considerably better form. After the compulsory figures on Thursday he was 35 points behind Wood (which could be considered a triumph of sorts since he had lagged 51 points behind Wood in the figures in 1969).
Free skating is Petkevich's game and for him always a gamble. In an uptight, high-button-shoe sport, he is regarded as the house rebel. He acquired the reputation some years ago by showing up for a competition in a turtleneck instead of the customary bolero jacket. The judges were horrified, and one wrote a chiding letter to Mrs. Petkevich for permitting such teen-age folly. So it was in tune with his character for Petkevich to choose radical skating music for his freestyle performance last week. In terms of skating's traditions his selection of On the Waterfront was as inappropriate as picking Alice's Restaurant as mood music for a Selective Service banquet.
Tim Wood, for one, was a bit testy about the liberties Petkevich was taking in putting together his skating program. "I flow faster than anyone on ice," Wood said. "My style is sharp, clean and simple, and I make my jumps look easy. There is never anything wrong, and that makes what I do look simple and easy to an ignorant audience. That's why I believe it is wrong to play to an audience. You knock yourself out and they sit on their hands. John Misha is a completely different skater. He goes for big, high jumps. But if you stop and look between those, right before and right after, it's a rough performance and scratchy. I don't know if it is right for him to skate that way. Personally, I want to skate for skating's sake and the beauty of it, and to show perfection for perfection's sake."
On Friday night Petkevich appeared for the freestyle in a black jump suit and white-lace shirt made from brassiere material—an outfit specially designed by Bergdorf-Goodman, that elegant New York store. From the start the crowd showed its partiality: during the warmup period Wood received the polite patter due a champion but Misha got the bursts of applause and shouted encouragement.
Petkevich's personal mood was a key to his performance. "I thought of speed, of feeling strong," he said later. "Sometimes the building is large and you pull yourself up. You feel strong and you become large and the building becomes small." He came on to the intense beat of drums, the drama of cymbals—and suddenly skating was being pushed centuries forward to the stark, leaping, stylized dances of West Side Story. The ignorant audience clapped delightedly, as much for Petkevich's creative gall in the face of five judges (two of whom disapproved) as for his split mazurka.
Five minutes later the sport was once more its sedate old self—with woodwinds and a ballet by Tim Wood. The defending champion is lithe, gliding and indisputably classic. "He's a skater's skater," said one appreciator of his art. "Good technique makes it look simple and elegant. Poor technique makes it look brash and bold." So the judges gave Wood the gold medal. It will be added to 15 others that he has won, which hang from his mother's charm bracelet.