MINNEAPOLIS, FEB. 18 -- The United States took a historic leap forward last weekend at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and not simply because of Tonya Harding's unprecedented triple axel.

In three of the four Olympic medal events, the champion was not necessarily the person, or pair, one might have expected. There were two bona fide upsets -- by Harding over Kristi Yamaguchi in women's singles and by Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow over April Sargent and Russ Witherby in dance. Men's winner Todd Eldredge trailed Christopher Bowman, who was widely considered the favorite, after the original program and had to scramble to retain his title.

Only in the pairs competition was there order. Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand won over sentimental favorites Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval in a decision that may have been based more on past than present performances.

All of this made wonderful theater, but it does present the United States with a unique set of prospects and problems heading into a most important three-year period. Next month come the world championships in Munich, which begin a seeding process of sorts for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

Then, for the first time in history, another Winter Olympics will follow in two years. The Olympics go to a staggered winter-summer schedule every two years, beginning in 1994 with the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

So there will be four world championships and two Olympics in the next three years, and every nation, especially one with the rich figure skating tradition of the United States, wants to take full advantage.

In putting so much confidence in Eldredge, 19, and Harding, 20, the U.S. figure skating community has sent a message to international judges that American ice is not the sole possession of Bowman, 23, and Yamaguchi, 19. But in a sport in which politics and longevity matter so much, the newer American talent might not yet have the weighty re'sume's that seem so necessary to win an international gold medal.

Then again, perhaps soon they will.

"This was by far the best national {men's} competition I've seen in a long time," said Evy Scotvold, who coaches men's and women's bronze medalists Paul Wylie and Nancy Kerrigan.

"The competition here was like world competition," said Toller Cranston, Bowman's coach and the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist from Canada. "When Mark Mitchell skates perfectly and drops a place {from third to fourth after a flawless long program}, you really have to think about it. Of these skaters going to worlds, probably many of them will win medals."

Cranston said the three American women -- Harding, Yamaguchi and Kerrigan -- could sweep the medals in Munich, and this is an unbiased observation, since he doesn't coach any of them. Harding will have to nail the triple axel again to stay ahead of Yamaguchi, but she did do it again in Sunday night's exhibition. She is the only U.S. woman to pull off the most difficult triple jump in competition.

"As the Soviets dominate pairs very often, the Americans now are dominating the women's competition," Cranston said.

But this presumes a void left by Japan's diminutive Midori Ito, who would be the favorite in Munich were her status not questionable following jaw surgery. She certainly is the one to beat in Albertville in 1992. And further complicating matters, Jill Trenary of the United States, the 1990 national and world champion, will return this spring after ankle surgery.

Canada's Kurt Browning, the two-time world champion, and the Soviet Union's Victor Petrenko are the favorites in the men's competition in the worlds and the Olympics. The only questions for the Americans are whether Eldredge can improve on a fifth-place finish last year at the worlds, and whether Bowman, third at last year's worlds, can turn his new, more conservative style into substance on the ice.

In pairs and dance, Americans are not expected to earn medals at either the worlds or Olympics.