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In Final Attempt at Gold, Eldredge Is Safe, Sorry

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, February 15, 1998; Page D13

 In his final shot at an Olympic gold medal, Todd Eldredge was tense and tentative. (AP File Photo)
NAGANO — Todd Eldredge said he was not tense, or tight, while he prepared to take the ice at White Ring for the men's long program Saturday evening. That seems almost impossible to believe. The television shots made him look like a guy whose stomach was churning. His performance made him look like he was tied up in knots.

Eldredge may have five national figure skating titles and one world championship, but he certainly does not come across as a guy who is good under pressure. He came to these Olympic Games with one last shot at a medal, the only thing he's lacking in his more than respectable career. He was in third place after the short program. The bronze medal was there for the taking. Even the judges — who are unbelievably subjective and frequently biased in this sport — wanted to give him third place.

And Eldredge blew up so badly that the judges could not justify giving it to him. He turned both his triple-triple combinations into triple-doubles. He turned one supposed triple jump into a single, then, when he tried to save himself at the end by converting a double Axel to a triple, he fell on his side. It was a bad program from start to finish.

"I guess when I finished there were no thoughts," said Eldredge, 26, of Chatham, Mass. "Not about medals, any of that. I wasn't pleased with what I had done. That wasn't the performance I wanted to put out there."

In a shockingly uncontroversial evening for this sport, Russia's Ilia Kulik (the judges' favorite) deservingly took the gold, and Canada's Elvis Stojko — who skated hurt and didn't even attempt his usual quadruple jump combinations — finished with the silver. And France's Philippe Candeloro danced away with Eldredge's bronze medal with the crowd-pleasing performance of the night. Eldredge finished fourth, and that's where he should have finished. He didn't deserve a medal for his performance Saturday night.

If that sounds harsh, well, maybe it would be easier to feel sorry for Eldredge if he had gone out there and attempted a quadruple jump and missed it, then skated the rest of his program as poorly as he did. Then at least he would have a decent excuse. Eldredge didn't. He chose the safe route, the safe program. In golf terms, he laid up.

And then he didn't even make par.

Kulik and Zhengxin Guo — who finished eighth — were the only skaters to hit quads Saturday night, but quads certainly have become an important standard in men's figure skating. I'm with Alexei Yagudin of Russia, who said this week that without a quad, "you're dead." Yagudin, 17, started the long program in fourth, missed his quad and screwed up a few other jumps. He wound up in fifth, behind Eldredge. But he gave it a shot.

So, too, did Michael Weiss of Fairfax, who was out of medal contention after his fall in Thursday's short program and was nursing a sore left hip, but never for a second considered taking his quadruple Lutz — the most difficult of quad jumps, and one no skater has landed in competition — out of his long program. He fell Saturday (although he did a very-close-to-clean quad in warm-ups) but performed marvelously the rest of the way and vaulted from 11th place to seventh. With Eldredge set to turn pro, Weiss gave American skating something to look forward to. Unless Weiss decides he's had enough, we'll be seeing him in Salt Lake City in four years, and it could be something to watch.

"It's something that I've set as a goal for myself — to try and do it," Weiss said of his quad. "I think athletes do that, they set goals for themselves."

The king of the quadruple jumps, Stojko, couldn't get one off in his program because apparently he was skating with a groin injury he has been hiding for a month. Stojko certainly wasn't hiding the sucker Saturday night: When his performance came to an end, he clutched his thigh. He grimaced and limped and did everything possible to make sure that every television watcher in the world knew that his silver came courtesy of pain, not personal failure.

Even without the quad, and even with his poor performance, Eldredge was still in medal contention until Candeloro skated, which was second-to-last. The bronze medalist in Lillehammer, Candeloro provided the high point of the evening for one simple reason: He clearly wasn't skating just for a medal, or even primarily for a medal. He was skating for his own pleasure, and for the pleasure of the crowd. And he was absolutely exhilarating to watch. Dressed as D'Artagnan, and skating to the music of "The Three Musketeers," Candeloro performed a mock sword fight on skates in the middle of his program, with step sequences that were truly fantastic to watch. The crowd was utterly enraptured, and so, too, were most of the judges, who gave him terrific marks for presentation and vaulted him from fifth place into a medal spot.

Eldredge said later that he did not watch Candeloro's program, that he only listened to the scores and, upon hearing them, knew his medal chances were over and it was time to pack up his bags. He should have watched. The saddest thing about Eldredge on Saturday night was not his on-ice failure but the way he looked before, and during, his program. No matter what he claimed to feel, he looked uptight and uneasy and close to miserable. Here he was, ready for his last big Olympic moment, and he had no idea how to enjoy it, or to enjoy himself.

"It's something that I really wanted," Eldredge said. "Everybody doesn't get everything they want. ... It's disappointing. It was a really good feeling for me to be here. Maybe I wanted it too much."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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