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A year ago Michelle Kwan told interviewers she wanted to be a legend, like Dorothy Hamill or Peggy Fleming. Then a 4'8" roof named Tara Lipinski fell on her, snatching away her national and world titles. But legends, like dreams, don't die, and last week at the U.S. nationals in Philadelphia, the same city where Fleming won her fifth American championship en route to the 1968 Olympic gold medal, the 17-year-old Kwan finally skated like one.
So breathtaking were her performances in Thursday's short program and Saturday's free skate that Kwan earned 15 scores (out of a possible 18) of 6.0 from the judges for her artistic presentation—by far the most ever awarded in a U.S. championship to a woman or a man. Even to the most discriminating eyes, she was perfect. Ron Pfenning, who had never given a 6.0 to a singles skater in more than 20 years of judging, gave Kwan two. "She floated," marveled another judge. "She enjoyed every second. She savored it."
Indeed, there was such a look of peace and beatitude on Kwan's face during her long program, which was skated to music from William Alwyn's Lyra Angelica, that she left the impression of a girl skating in a secret garden, rather than a competitor performing in a packed arena (18,000-plus) with the U.S. title and a berth in the Nagano Olympics at stake. The difficulty of her moves—seven triple jumps, each landed solidly; a layback spin followed by a camel spin in the opposite direction; elongated spirals—was masked by the joy so evident in her demeanor. "When I hear that music, it always reminds me of angels and clouds," Kwan said afterward. "That's what I was thinking of while skating. That I'm free, and I'm going to cloud nine."
The audience was already there, for although Kwan gave the only unforgettable performance of the evening, it had been preceded by a pair of sparkling routines by Lipinski, who climbed to second after having fallen in her short program, and 20-year-old Nicole Bobek, the 1995 U.S. champion, who delighted her ardent fans by finishing third. Those three make up one of the strongest ladies teams the U.S. has ever sent to an Olympics. "From the performances we saw tonight," said Richard Callaghan, Lipinski's coach, "we could be one-two-three in Nagano." (Russia's Irina Slutskaya and Germany's Tanja Szweczenko will be the primary roadblocks to an American sweep.)
The same can't be said for the men. Todd Eldredge took home a fifth national title, the most since Dick Button won seven between 1946 and '52. But it wasn't an inspired win, which bodes ill for his chances in Nagano, where he won't have the benefit of what was a panel of apparently smitten judges in Philadelphia. Eldredge, 26, is a likable guy, a good citizen and, having finished second, first and second in the last three world championships, is without question the best U.S. hope for an Olympic medal in the men's event. All those are bankable chips with U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) judges, and Eldredge cashed them in on Thursday after dealing out a long program so unimaginative that it was like watching him skate a 4½-minute training drill. Crossover, crossover, jump. Crossover, crossover, raise arms. Crossover, crossover, spin. Yes, he was smooth. Yes, he was flowing. Lord, he was boring. Even a last-second triple Axel and Eldredge's unexpected and welcome attempt to land his first competitive quadruple toe loop, which resulted in a crash landing, failed to enliven the insipid program. Yet when the marks came in, the judges—a.k.a. the Todd Squad—handed Eldredge six 5.9s for artistic presentation. Call it a good-luck-in-Nagano gift after a long and estimable career.
Second place, for the second year in a row, went to Michael Weiss of Fairfax, Va., who won the crowd, if not the crown, by attempting the first quadruple Lutz in competition. A charismatic performer and dynamic jumper, the 21-year-old Weiss is appealingly different: athletic, self-assured bordering on cocky, and married. But Weiss's relentless pursuit of the quad is, from a skating standpoint, the main thing that sets him apart from his peers. He seems to understand what Eldredge may not—that no Olympic gold medal will ever again be won by a man who doesn't try a four-revolution jump. At last year's nationals Weiss appeared to have succeeded in becoming the first American to land a quadruple toe loop cleanly in competition, but after a review of the tape, USFSA officials declared his free foot had touched down on the landing, nullifying the jump. Rather than repeating the quad toe loop this year, Weiss raised the bar (a Lutz is more difficult than a toe loop because it requires a skater to change directions after launching the jump). "Everyone else is doing the quad toe," says Weiss, referring to Canada's Elvis Stojko and Russia's Ilia Kulik and Alexei Yagudin, "so I made it a goal to be the first to land the quad Lutz."
Weiss lands only about one in 10 quad Lutzes cleanly in practice, but he knew the judges would never put him ahead of Eldredge without it. As in boxing, you don't beat the champion by decision. It must be a knockout. So, skating to Beethoven's overture to Egmont, Weiss dramatically circled the ice on Thursday, gained speed, assumed a Lutz position and leaped. He completed the requisite four revolutions and came down to a thunderous roar. But a spray of white kicked up, the sign of a two-footed landing. Still, it was an electrifying attempt, and he followed it with a triple Axel-triple toe combination (outdoing Eldredge's triple Axel-double toe). A botched triple-flip combination and a couple of jarring landings cost Weiss the title, as seven of the nine judges placed him below Eldredge despite giving Weiss generally higher technical marks.
"I thought I might have won," Weiss said, unembittered and thrilled to be heading to Japan, the country where his father, Greg Weiss, competed in gymnastics for the U.S. at the 1964 Tokyo Games. "The audience was booing the marks, so obviously they felt I should have too. That's all I needed to hear."
But all that was dwarfed in significance by Kwan's dance with perfection on Saturday night. Most amazing, perhaps, was that as recently as the day after Christmas, Kwan had considered withdrawing from the event. She was still bothered by the pain from a stress fracture in the second toe of her left foot that was diagnosed in November. She had spent most of that month in a cast and been forced to withdraw from the Champions Series Final in Munich on Dec. 19-21, which was won by Lipinski. In the days leading to the nationals, jumps propelled by the left foot, like the toe loop and Salchow, still caused stabs of pain.
Kwan struggled in practices early in the week, falling regularly while attempting to land her triple flip. Lipinski, who had spurted in the last year to 4'10" and added five pounds, to a good 80, seemed to have regained her form after early-season setbacks at Skate America and Trophée Lalique, and she'd added elements of artistry to her technically superior style. In practice Lipinski hardly missed a jump all week.