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Last Saturday, somewhere between the time Nancy Kerrigan singled her first triple Lutz and 20-some seconds later buckled at the knees like a boxer while landing a shaky triple Salchow, the U.S. figure skating contingent at the world championships in Prague began to realize it might be shut out in the medals count.
Then Kerrigan's performance got worse. As the great red-white-and-blue hope in Prague, she had led an impressive field of women after the technical program. Now she began tottering on legs made of wood. While the music from a certain Disney movie sound track played on, the beauty was skating like a beast, doubling both another triple Lutz and another triple Salchow, and taking a step in the midst of a combination, giving the judges no choice but to place her—egads!—ninth in the free-skating program. Kerrigan, who had taken the silver at last year's worlds, plummeted to fifth overall.
With one of the other U.S. female skaters, Lisa Ervin, finishing 13th and the third, Tonia Kwiatkowski, failing to qualify for the finals, Kerrigan's demise meant that for the first time since 1969 the U.S. women did not earn a medal at the world championships. It was a stunning turn of events, considering that just two years ago Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Kerrigan finished 1-2-3. It also meant that for the first time since 1964, the entire U.S. figure skating team went home empty-handed. "My knees just weren't working, I guess," a dazed Kerrigan said afterward. "I felt more pressure than I'd admitted."
For every star that fizzles, however, another rises, and in this case the ascendant skater was 15-year-old Oksana Baiul from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Baiul, who is the youngest women's world champion since Sonja Henie, had never before competed in a world championships. She had never so much as competed in a world junior championships. Before finishing second in the Europeans in Helsinki in January, she had competed only twice outside the former Soviet Union. But suddenly there was Baiul, the first skater ever from the erstwhile U.S.S.R. to win the women's title.
Baiul's story spread quickly. She had wanted to be a ballet dancer, but she was chubby as a child; so to help her trim down, her grandfather bought her a pair of skates. Bauil's father died when she was a toddler. Her mother died two years ago, at 36, of cancer. Baiul still cries when asked to speak of her. Thus, at 13, she was orphaned. Her original coach, Stanislav Koretek, left the Ukraine last year to make his fortune in Canada. But before he departed, he made sure Baiul was in good hands. He asked Galina Zmievskaya to take over Baiul's training.
He could not have passed Baiul into more capable hands. Zmievskaya is also the coach and mother-in-law of Viktor Petrenko, a Ukrainian who was the 1992 men's Olympic gold medalist, and Baiul, who has no other family, moved to Zmievskaya's home in Odessa. Petrenko has been picking up the bills for Baiul's skates and outfits, and despite the sadness in her life, she has obviously thrived. "God has taken away her family," says Zmievskaya, "but the skating world is now her family. It's all natural to her, all God-given talent. You tell her something, and she goes, 'Like this?' She docs it all on her own."
Baiul finished second to Kerrigan in the technical program and then won the free skating, edging out the much-improved Surya Bonaly of France. Baiul is a competent jumper—she has the standard triples repertoire of Lutz, Salchow, loop, flip and toe loop—and she doesn't move like a 15-year-old. Poised, confident, arrestingly supple, she is all curves when she skates, her arms like two cords of rope being shaken in the wind. She's a natural performer. When her name is announced, Baiul waits long seconds before skating to center ice to begin her program. Why does she prolong the moment? "I listen to my skates," she says, flashing a dazzling smile. "When they can start, they go to the start." It's a moment that's worth waiting for.
As for the dismal U.S. performance in Prague, U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) officials swear that this was a one-year post-Olympic aberration rather than a sign there is a terminal illness festering in the coaching or selection process of the team. "This too shall pass," vowed USFSA president Claire Ferguson. "Champions not only have to be good athletes, they have to be able to put it together mentally and emotionally. These kids will figure it out."
The top U.S. finish in the ice dancing was a dreadful 11th by Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur, who won the nationals in January; as a result only one U.S. ice dancing couple will qualify for a spot in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Top U.S. placement among the pairs was a creditable fifth by Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. The top finish for the men? Fourth, by Mark Mitchell, who, like Kerrigan, froze up during the free-skating program after having finished second in the technical portion.
But if the medal pickings were lean for U.S. skaters, the pre-Olympic harvest for the Canadians was the richest in 30 years. There must be something about Prague. The last time the world championships were held in this magical city, in 1962, Canadian skaters took home two golds, a silver and a bronze. Last week they won two golds and a silver. In no other year and in no other city has Canada won two figure skating gold medals at a world championship. "We knew the strength of our team," said Kurt Browning after winning the gold medal and his fourth men's world singles title. (Teammate Elvis Stojko took the silver.) "We had a good feeling about this one."