DENVER, JAN. 6 -- Three-time defending champion Brian Boitano emphatically took first place in the compulsories of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships today, ahead of stylish pursuer Christopher Bowman and a Harvard man named Paul Wylie.

Boitano, the 1986 world champion who is considered the best U.S. hope for a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Calgary next month, was awarded first place by eight of nine judges after completing the three required school figures. The opening phase of the competition counts for 30 percent of the overall score, and thus gives him a comfortable and expected lead over his chief competition, 20-year-old Bowman of Los Angeles and Wylie, a 23-year-old undergraduate.

"You never really do three of your best figures," Boitano said. "I can never remember having done three of my very, very best. But this approached it."

The compulsory segment is an antique element of figure skating, a rigid Victorian exercise that many spectators may find boring, but which counts for a sizable percent of the skaters' final score. The short program counts for just 20 percent, while the long program is worth 50 percent.

The figures consist of three variations of a figure eight, in this case named the Rocker, the Paragraph Double Three, and the Change Loop. They weren't nearly as exciting as their names, the skaters making agonizingly slow trace marks across the ice, while the nine judges marked them on accuracy and form. To the unschooled eye, the sight of the judges bending over the figures with small ice brushes and measuring tools can resemble several people looking for their contact lenses on a ballroom floor.

But Boitano has made the exercises a strength. By reputation one of the finest technical skaters in the world, if not the most demonstrative, he performed nervelessly over the long event. The 24-year-old from Sunnyvale, Calif. finished second on only one judge's card -- rated seventh by that judge on the Rocker -- while Bowman took five second-place marks and Wylie received third place from seven scorers.

"If Boitano skates perfectly there's no way he can be beaten, because he is technically ahead," Wylie said. "Brian is the ceiling in this competition."

A victory here is considered vital for Boitano going into Calgary, where he meets current world champion Brian Orser of Canada and world medalist Alexander Fadeev of the Soviet Union. Boitano took the silver medal at the world competition in Cincinnati last year behind Orser, and is being chased at home as well. The top three finishers here will make up the U.S. team in Calgary barring unforseen injuries or upsets.

Bowman was second behind Boitano at the 1987 nationals, took seventh place at the world championships, and is said to possess the artistry that some accuse Boitano of lacking. But he was competing here today on an injured left ankle he called "sort of sprained," and with a nerve-ridden stomach he said was "like a Cuisinart."

Wylie, a native of Denver, will go back to a final exam in U.S. government at Harvard after this competition. His third-place standing was relatively surprising coming as it did over Scott Williams of Redondo Beach, Calif., who took third in the '87 nationals but was in fifth place today. But Wylie is known for his consistency, and also for two first-place finishes coming into the nationals, in the New England regional and the St. Ivel International in London.

None of which means Boitano can be overtaken. The heir apparent to 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton has a technically difficult long program that should be insurmountable if he completes it without falling. Boitano has said he will not attempt his famed quadruple jump, an unprecedented four-revolution leap he has yet to make in competition.

"If I could lay something like this out for the Olympics, I'd feel okay," Bitano said.

The women's competition begins with compulsories on Thursday as Stanford pre-med student Debi Thomas will attempt to reclaim the national title she lost to Jill Trenary last year. A victory for her here will tell whether she can confidently enter into another confrontation with reigning world champion Katerina Witt of East Germany at the Olympics.

Thomas won the national and world titles in 1986, but finished second in both last year after suffering from tendinitis in her ankles and an inconsistent training regimen. But she enters these nationals a different skater, healthy, slimmed down from her usual 135 pounds, and on leave from school while she trains full time in Boulder, Colo. She also enlisted Mikhail Baryshnikov to help her with her dance movements, and includes a rare triple-triple jump combination in her long program.

Those circumstances combine to make Thomas a favorite despite Trenary's '87 title and the presence of Caryn Kadavy, the bronze medalist at the world championships. Trenary and Kadavy are the proteges of coach Carlo Fassi, the master who produced Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill. They are considered the more conventional, dancer-like skaters, while Thomas plays the role of charismatic with her triple-triple.

"I was hoping to be the underdog," Thomas said. "I'd hate to be a judge right now. It's that close."

Two local products finished high in the men's novice division. Paul Dulebohn of the Baltimore Figure Skating Club finished in third place, and Michael Weiss of Silver Spring and the Washington Figure Skating Club finished in sixth place.

Defending champions Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory added to their lead in senior dance by winning the original set pattern. Skating the tango, they finished first with seven of nine judges.

Susan Wynne and Joseph Druar remained second. They also finished behind Semanick and Gregory in the compulsories.