-- Tim Goebel played down the importance of defending his national title here. He de-emphasized his preparation, his competitive mind-set, his likelihood of winning this event. Fresh off a hip injury that caused him to miss the fall competitive season, Goebel seemed to be suggesting that he wasn't quite at his best. That he wasn't really ready for the nerve-racking competition at the 2003 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"I just want to get through this year," he said. "I really don't have high expectations for this season."

Then he casually mentioned something that belied his nonchalance: He plans to attempt four quadruple jumps in his free skate at these championships, which begin for the men with Thursday's short program.

It was a bombshell released with a slingshot.

"I just want to do something different," he said during a news conference today, as if anyone could include four quads in his program if he wished. "It gets stale to do the same elements in a program."

Landing four quads not only would make him the only person to have done so, but it also would double the number landed by anyone else in competition. Only Goebel has ever hit three in a single performance. Very few men have landed two. McLean's Michael Weiss, Goebel's biggest rival here, has never landed more than one -- though he will try a pair in his long program. Former U.S. champion Todd Eldredge never scored a single quad at a major competition.

Goebel, 22, first landed three quadruple jumps back in the fall of 1999 and he has been outjumping the rest of the world ever since. At last year's Salt Lake Winter Games, he became the first man to land three in the Olympics, winning the bronze medal behind Russian stars Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko.

"Most of the athletes can't do more than one," Goebel said in a hallway after the news conference. "No one else is doing two different quads. . . . It's just funny that, for other athletes, it's such a big deal."

Weiss, actually, is planning a quad lutz -- which no one, including Goebel, has landed in competition -- and a quadruple toe for his long program. Goebel will attempt two quadruple salchows and two quadruple toes.

Told about Goebel's plans for enhancing his program, Weiss took the Goebel approach: He shrugged. Though Weiss described the attempt as "incredible," he said he thought Goebel could be beaten even if he landed all four.

"Quads are important, but they're not it," Weiss said. "They're not the only thing. Tim landed three quads at the Olympics. Yagudin and Plushenko didn't land three and they ended up beating him."

Weiss and Goebel exuded contrasting energy at their back-to-back news conferences. Goebel seemed at ease enough to doze off. Weiss, on the other hand, glowed about his recent successes -- he won Trophee Lalique in Paris in November -- and talked enthusiastically about his desire to regain the national title he held in 1999 and 2000.

After Goebel confessed that defending his national title "is not really my goal," saying he just wanted to secure one of the three available spots for the March world championships in Washington, Weiss made clear that winning the gold medal is very much in his plans.

"It's very important" to me, he said. "The U.S. championships are a very coveted competition to win. Being the U.S. champion is a big deal. I would like to be the national champion."

Goebel says he would just like to prove he is healthy. After succumbing to his hip problems in August, Goebel took two full weeks off and began an intense period of rehabilitation. He said his right hip, which was injured because of overuse, still stiffens up after a hard week of training, but otherwise is back to normal.

Because the injury affected only the landings of his jumps, Goebel said, he never lost his feel for rotation, even during his time off. It wasn't hard to add a quadruple jump to his long program; he said he simply substituted it for one of the two triple axels he typically does. For Goebel, adding the quad and taking out the axel represented an even exchange.

Goebel admitted, though, that he fears a four-quad program at nationals might not be amply rewarded by the judging panel.

"For judges, they don't care," he said. "They don't. They are absolutely not interested. . . . [Especially] at nationals, they don't weight it enough. . . . I'm sorry, but the quad is worth more than an extra tenth" of a point.

Goebel was perhaps obliquely referring to his performance at the 2000 U.S. championships in Cleveland. There, he landed three quadruple jumps and, in the eyes of many observers, appeared to have beaten Weiss, who landed nine triples but no quads. But Goebel finished second.

At that time, however, Goebel hadn't begun training under Frank Carroll. He hadn't begun ironing out the awkwardness in his artistry, his hunched-over shoulders, his often graceless arms. His presentation marks in the years since have confirmed his progress.

But questions remain. Does a perfect program by Weiss, considered a more well-rounded skater, top a perfect program by Goebel, an artistically surging, athletically unmatched skater?

"I want the chips down [on the table] for everyone," said Weiss's coach, Don Laws. "Then you can really discuss it. I don't think anyone is a favorite now."

Tim Goebel, 22, landed three quads to win the bronze medal at the Salt Lake Olympics.