In the closed-shop sport of figure skating, a defending champion is rarely deposed. Most often champions reign through an Olympics and a world meet or two, then defect to an ice show, sequins and all. But what the game misses in suspense it makes up in intrigue. The fans and experts applaud the inevitable, then get down to the far grittier business of following the infighting among the contenders struggling to become next in line. All of which pretty much made up the script in Colorado Springs last week at the U.S. national championships and Olympic Trials.
The faithful flocked to the Broadmoor Hotel to salute Dorothy Hamill, 19, twice the U.S. champion and the world silver medalist, a queen who is so locked into the role that chances are she could have sent in her performance by mail. Not that Hamill isn't deserving; she is as much a victim of the system as anyone. Her jumps were high, her landings light and she crackled with championship poise. She had smoked them all off earlier in the compulsory school figures, and her crown was secure.
" Hamill could lose," insisted one admirer. "Sure," answered a cynic. "If she falls down five times or disappears in a blinding flash." And with the champion piling up points, attention turned to the icy scramble shaping up for second and third spots. Leading contenders were Wendy Burge, 18, who had placed second in last year's nationals, and Kath Malmberg, 19, who had finished third. Experts also gave an outside chance to Barbie Smith, 16, of Westminster, Calif. and Priscilla (Tinker Bell) Hill, 14, of Lexington, Mass. Both girls are capable of whipping off into triple jumps, a flashy and perilous move that calls for 3� revolutions in midair. Not everybody can pull it off, including the champion, who is reluctant to get caught that far off the ice. Still, the triple, once a move limited to men skaters, is becoming standard with many of the women. And last of all, nobody in all Colorado paid any attention to a 5'3" 85-pounder named Linda Fratianne, of Los Angeles, the Pacific Coast freestyle champion, who had placed an out-of-sight seventh in last year's nationals. As they say in commercials, back to Linda in a moment.
To confuse the issues further, two of the best women figure skaters in the world, both Americans, were not even there to take on the U.S. champion. Most conspicuously absent was world champion Dianne deLeeuw, of Paramount, Calif., a dynamic athlete who competes for the Netherlands despite the fact that she is U.S. born and was sharpened to top class in this country. DeLeeuw carries dual citizenship, a legal sleight-of-hand thing they do with passports, which has enabled her to avoid standing in the American competition chorus-line to wait her turn with everybody else. Another absentee was Susanna Driano, 18, the Italian champion, who skates under the same arrangement. Driano, also winner of this year's Canadian International competition, trains in Denver with Ham-ill's coach, Carlo Fassi, the man who brought us Peggy Fleming, but she too skips all U.S. events. DeLeeuw preps for the Olympics under the care of Coach Doug Chapman in California, then jets off to Europe for competition. So much for the system: the U.S. moves its skaters up in lockstep; in countries like the Netherlands and Italy it is a lot easier to make the Olympic team right away.
Marching through feathery snowflakes that might have been ordered for the occasion, the Air Force Academy band trooped to the arena, followed by children dressed in tri-corner hats, white breeches and gold-braided red jackets, like so many miniature George Washing-tons setting out for the Delaware.
Inside the hall Hamill breezed through the seven prescribed moves to take first in the short program, her two minutes of ice time fiery, clean and admirable, as always. Malmberg, solid but unspectacular, placed second, trailed by the businesslike Burge. Barbie Smith finished the program, but withdrew when an earlier leg injury flared up. Priscilla Hill, despite a breathtaking performance, drew modest marks—far too modest by crowd reaction.
"What they don't understand," said one old skate who approves of the system, "is that Priscilla is being groomed for the next four years." In Olympic year 1980 Hill will be 18 and presumably ripe for stardom, unless she can rummage into her ancestry and produce a foreign link to dual citizenship. Now back to Linda Fratianne.
Sprinting across the rink in an explosion of 15-year-old energy, Linda put on a performance that made some of the other offerings look like training films for beginners. Even the judges raised their predisposed heads. Still, Fratianne had placed only fourth in school figures, 30% of her total score, and it did not seem likely that she could overtake Burge or Malmberg. "No way," said the old skate. "We do not send unknown quantities to the Olympics." When her short program was over, with the finals to follow, Fratianne was in the fourth spot.
The intervening men's program only served to build suspense. Three-time champion Gordon McKellen Jr. had vacated the role and grabbing for it were David Santee, 18, who had unexpectedly placed first in compulsories; world freestyle champion (not to be confused with world champion) Terry Kubicka, 19; and an old nationals regular, Charles Tickner, 22. When the ice chips settled, Kubicka was the new national champion and Innsbruck-bound, backed up by Santee. Tickner was out of it; third place went to Scott Cramer. The senior women took to the ice again.
Fans packing the arena did not have to wait long for their darling; Hamill was first in the draw. Gliding prettily into action, she started out strongly with an open axel, followed by a perfect double axel. But she leaned badly on her next double axel. The bobble must have upset her, for that was, in effect, the end of her four-minute program.