CALGARY, FEB. 16 -- United States pairs figure skaters Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard brought charm to the Winter Olympics last night, winning a bronze medal to become the first American stars of the Games by popular acclaim. Two-time world champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov of the Soviet Union, as expected, won the gold medal.

Watson and Oppegard overcame her sprawl on a combination jump early in their piece from "Madame Butterfly" to earn the first medal for the United States.

Over the course of the evening, several pairs fell, and Gordeeva and Grinkov were among the few who skated confidently without mishap, their classical piece drawing a standing ovation from the full house of 19,000 at the Calgary Saddledome.

"We're happy, we did everything perfectly," Gordeeva said through an interpreter.

Watson and Oppegard's silver-medal hopes were ruined by some slips that allowed the second Soviet pair, defending Olympic champions Elena Valova and Oleg Vassiliev, to finish second with another clean and consistent classical program. Also, they were briefly distracted when a maintenance worker entered the ring to retrieve a dropped camera bag.

But it was a victory nevertheless for the United States, which has languished in the medal standings.

"We were so close to a medal and we didn't want to give it up," Watson said. "We had to dig deep."

The Soviet Union's pairs skaters have won every Olympic gold medal since 1964, but frequently have been correct technical performers who did little artistically. In Gordeeva and Grinkov, two mismatched youths from Moscow, they have finally found a warmer voice to go with their brilliant fundamentals.

Skating in ice-blue silk and flowers to Chopin and Mendelssohn, they brought the capacity house to roars and collected marks of 5.9 out of a possible 6.0 from six of the nine judges and three 5.8s for technical merit. They received solid 5.9s and a single 5.8 for artistry.

Watson and Oppegard skated into the middle of that noise, performing after the Soviets. It was not the most conducive circumstance to a medal performance, particularly on a night that was somewhat flat and tense.

But their innovative moves made up for a sometimes troubled performance that gave the United States its first reason to celebrate.

It included a traveling death spiral, in which Oppegard carried Watson across the ice as she spun. They then drew gasps with their trademark swoop, in which Oppegard let Watson plummet out of a lift headfirst and then caught her just short of the ice.

But with the sensationalism came some bobbles. Watson missed an early side-by-side double axel, stumbling and falling.

On another late combination jump, Watson did a single flip to Oppegard's double. Those brought their marks down to bronze level, with three 5.7s, four 5.6s, a 5.5 and a 5.4. Artistically the scores were slightly higher, an array of 5.6s and 5.8s.

"I felt I landed it, but all of a sudden I was down," Watson said of her fall. "I said, 'Listen, if you want this medal you are going to have to do these things.' "

Watson and Oppegard were attempting to duplicate the silver medal feat of Peter and Kitty Carruthers four years ago in Sarajevo. The United States has not won a gold in pairs.

Valova and Vassiliev skated a virtually clean, if not thrilling, program to earn better technical marks from six judges. Their marks were predominately 5.7s technically, and 5.8s for impression.

The Olympic title is the third major event Gordeeva and Grinkov have won in the last two years of senior international skating. They won their first world championship in 1985, when she was just 14.

They present an eye-catching contrast: He is 21, a straight-backed 6-footer with an amiable expression, while she is now 16, barely more than 5-0 and 90 pounds.

ABC has called hers the most beautiful face in the Games, and named her the heir to gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci in thawing East-West relations. The camera has rarely strayed from her stunning brown-haired, blue-eyed features.

Watson, a 24-year-old from Bloomington, Ind., and Oppegard, a 28-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., said before the competition they intended to challenge the Soviet domination. Had they skated cleanly, they might have.

Paired together just after the 1984 Olympics, where Watson placed sixth with former partner Burt Lancon, they also climbed quickly into prominence. The first indication that they might challenge for a medal came at the world championships in Cincinnati last spring, when they won the bronze.

The second American pair, Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner, entered the long program in fourth place and also in medal contention.

But they finished fifth when she missed a side-by-side triple axel and touched her hand to the ice on a triple salchow, and he lost his footing slightly on a spin.

Their marks ranged from 5.3 to 5.6. The third U.S. pair, Wayne and Natalie Seabold, finished 10th in the field of 15.

----- --------------------- ------- ----------- Consecutive

Event --------------------- Country ----------- Gold Medals

Figure Skating Pairs ------ Soviet Union ------ 7(1964-88)

Ski Jump: 90 meters ------- Norway ------------ 6(1924-52)

Biathlon: 4 x 7.5K relay -- Soviet Union ------ 5(1968-84)

SOURCE: Statistician Jerry Tapp