At a time when the figure skating world is trying to decipher a new scoring system, Michael Weiss finds himself puzzled with the one that has been in place for decades.

In the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships tonight, the two-time national champion two-footed his quadruple toe-triple toe combination and stumbled out of a triple axel, sinking to his knee on the landing. His technical scores ranged from 5.0 to 5.4 and his presentation scores ranged from 5.6 to 5.8, putting him in fourth place entering the free skate.

Timothy Goebel, the Olympic bronze medalist at the Salt Lake City Games, is the leader, followed by Johnny Weir and Matt Savoie, who has tendinitis in his left knee. The top three finishers qualify for the world championships at MCI Center on March 24-30. The free skate is Saturday.

"I thought that would have been good enough to be in second," said Weiss, of McLean. "Some of the programs the other people are doing is stuff we were doing in juniors. For the marks to be that low I thought was ridiculous."

Although the scoring didn't seem to make sense to Weiss, his coach of the last few months, Don Laws, did not have any problem with the marks.

"He was marked correctly," said Laws, who took over coaching duties after Weiss fired longtime coach Audrey Weisiger in late October. "He touched down on the quads and he didn't complete the axel. That's almost four-tenths of a deduction, so that's where we are.

"I'm disappointed that it was a bad skate, but that's the way it happens."

Vaulting from fourth to first is no easy task, but as Sarah Hughes proved in the Olympics last year, it is possible. Weiss just knows that it will take some help from the other skaters.

"I'm upset," he said. "I can't control my own destiny."

Of the top finishers, Weir was the only skater to perform a clean program.

Weir, who placed fifth in last year's championships, did not attempt a quadruple jump, however. He did not have time to practice quadruples because he has been recovering from a stress fracture in his right shin. He also was forced to skip two of his Grand Prix events because of the flu.

Now he is in position to make the world team.

"I really wasn't thinking about worlds," said Weir, who trains in Newark, Del.

Goebel, meantime, also was happy to be competing again. After the Olympics, he toured with Champions on Ice in more than 90 shows. Then he suffered a hip injury that sidelined him for the Grand Prix season. Despite the time off, Goebel was the only one in the competition to land a quadruple jump but was shaky on the landing. He followed it up with a double instead of a triple and stumbled out of his triple axel.

He was happy, however, to be back competing in his first major competition since the Olympics.

"It felt great to be back," Goebel said. "For some strange reason, I like the adrenaline, the nervousness. This is all about why I came back."

Scott Smith, who lived in Laurel before moving to Boston this past summer to train with Mark Mitchell, is fifth.

"I'm very excited about my performance," he said. "My goal was to make the ABC broadcast, to be in the top six."

Derrick Delmore, of Alexandria, withdrew after struggling through his short program. Delmore has been battling a hip flexor injury the last couple of months. The pain was so severe that his longtime coach, Shirley Hughes, told him he did not have to compete at nationals. But the lure of having the world championships in his home town was too great for Delmore not to make the trip to Dallas and compete.

"I would have killed myself if I hadn't given it a try," Delmore said.

Delmore, a former world junior champion who finished sixth at the 2002 national championships, fell on his quadruple attempt, turned a triple lutz into a double and did a single axel. His technical scores ranged from 3.3 to 3.9 and his presentation marks went from 4.7 to 5.1.

Although Delmore won't be skating in the world championships, he will be participating in the event as an athlete representative for the organizing committee.

Kurt Fromknecht, who trains in Laurel, is 13th and Shaun Rogers, a Baltimore native, is 19th.

Two-time national champion Michael Weiss, who recently left coach Audrey Weisiger, was spinning his wheels after short program. "I can't control my own destiny," he said.