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 Figure skating section

  Kerrigan Off on Right Foot; Harding Bobbles to 10th

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 1994; Page A1

 Nancy Kerrigan and longtime coach Evy Scotvold celebate after a near-perfect technical program that puts her within reach of a gold medal. (File Photo)
HAMAR, Norway, Feb. 23 — Nancy Kerrigan stood in the middle of the Olympic Amphitheatre here tonight as bouquets of flowers rained down from a cheering crowd. High above her, in a glassed-in booth, Tonya Harding, out of costume and her performance long over, sat with her coach and watched, applauding politely.

After seven weeks of unyielding media attention and unprecedented worldwide anticipation, the competition between the two U.S. figure skaters turned out to be no contest. Kerrigan's near-perfect technical program gave her the lead in the Olympic women's figure skating competition and Harding's two missteps landed her in 10th place.

Kerrigan, clubbed above her right knee on Jan. 6, confidently skated one of the finest performances of her life. A visibly nervous Harding, who has been linked to the attack by her former husband, stumbled early, her skating taut, her smiles forced.

Kerrigan's performance puts her within reach of a gold medal in Friday night's free skate program. Harding, who made two crucial mistakes during her uncomfortable 2-minute 40-second program, has very little chance of winning a medal.

"It's great," said Kerrigan, who was voted first by seven of the nine judges. "You can really feel how excited everybody is for me, as well as what I feel. I'm just really proud of myself."

Harding had a two-footed landing on her triple Lutz, then took a step before the double toe that followed. That meant the move was not technically a combination jump, one of the required elements in the short program. She later two-footed the landing on an easy double flip. Still, Harding said she was pleased with her effort.

"I feel good," she said through a U.S. Figure Skating Association spokesman. "It went good. You can't be perfect every time."

While Harding clearly had troubles, Kerrigan was as close to perfect as any of the 27 skaters were tonight in a competition expected to be watched by more than 100 million Americans and millions more TV viewers around the world.

One by one, Kerrigan's top competitors came onto the ice as the evening grew late, and put on a performance better than the last. By the time Kerrigan, skating next-to-last, arrived at center stage, she knew she had to skate well just to reach the top five.

The technical program counts for one-third of the overall score. Friday's free skate is two-thirds.

Only Ukraine's Oksana Baiul, the reigning world champion, came close to pleasing the judges as much as Kerrigan did. Sixteen-year-old Baiul, who landed with two feet on her triple Lutz-double toe combination, was marked down technically, but came back with six 5.9s (out of 6.0) for artistic impression and was placed first by the judges from Britain and Ukraine.

France's Surya Bonaly, the current European champion, is third, followed by China's Lu Chen, and Germany's Tanja Szewczenko and Katarina Witt, who was the 1984 and '88 gold medalist. Chen might have finished higher had she not stumbled out of her opening triple Lutz-double toe combination and into the sideboards and CBS-TV camera.

After waiting for the appreciative sellout audience of 6,000 to quiet after loudly cheering her arrival, Kerrigan slowly, methodically built to her big move: the triple Lutz-double toe combination. As she glided to the corner of the rink, only a few feet from Evy and Mary Scotvold, her longtime coaches, Kerrigan tore into the air, rotated three times and landed without a scratch. She then jumped again, spun twice and softly came back to the ice.

Evy Scotvold's arms reached toward the ceiling as he yelled out in delight. The crowd roared. Kerrigan knew the most difficult part of her program was over.

"She's been perfect on the combinations in practice," Scotvold said, "and that is the short program. So I expected her to do this. She's on top of her game."

In the final two minutes of her program, Kerrigan nailed her double Axel and double flip with ease, had a tiny, inconsequential slip on footwork, and spun to a finish as spectators rose to applaud and dozens of U.S. flags danced in the stands.

Kerrigan wore a classic white skating dress, with sheer black sleeves; Harding's costume was red, covered with sequins and notable for the thin sequined strips that ran down the otherwise backless dress.

"To go out there was really exciting, to have all the crowd behind me and everyone at home as well," said Kerrigan, who has boxes and boxes of mail awaiting her at home in Stoneham, Mass. "Before I went out I felt a little too calm, but once I stepped out there, I felt it and I was ready. It was a real long day. But I've been skating so well, so I was very confident and just knew I would skate well."

What did she think about before her music, an original work titled "Desperate Love" by her choreographer, Mark Militano, came over the public-address system?

"Okay, this is it, this is the Olympics," Kerrigan said she said to herself.

Kerrigan's marks reflected her precision: two 5.6s and the rest 5.8s and 5.9s for technical performance; and one 5.6, two 5.7s, two 5.8s and four 5.9s for artistry.

After it was over, the magnitude of what Kerrigan had done began to sink in with her coaches and friends. Seven weeks ago, she was hit on the knee after a practice session for the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit and had to withdraw. She missed nearly two weeks of practice. Now, for one night anyway, she was on top of the Olympic world.

"I'm just so emotionally moved by it," Mary Scotvold said. "She was so deliberate in everything she did, every gesture, every jump. It was just very exciting to see her do her best after these seven weeks."

"She can go out there and write the script" Friday night, said 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie, one of Kerrigan's best friends. "It is a tremendous feat. She can look back at this moment and say, 'I did a great job. When everybody was saying I had a fragile psyche, I went out there and nailed the combination against all odds.' "

Harding too was fighting the odds after a grueling month in which Jeff Gillooly, her former husband, accused her of helping plan the attack on Kerrigan. Looking tired and tentative, Harding, skating eighth, came onto the ice to warm applause — and neither a boo nor a whistle.

She said a prayer before her music, "Much Ado About Nothing," began. Back in the Olympic Village, preparing to come to the arena, Kerrigan watched Harding on television,

While Harding clearly was trying, she seemed to be overwhelmed as she skated. Little went right. Her arm movements were rigid, forced. Her footwork was too slow. She didn't look anything like the skater who won last month's Olympic trials.

When she finished, it was clear she had not done enough. Her scores were low: 4.8s to a 5.3 for technical merit, 5.3 to 5.6 for artistic impression. The scores weren't good enough to pass Witt, the returning German legend who skated very well out of the fourth position, and as the evening wore on, Harding dropped back.

But if Harding was perturbed, she didn't show it.

"The landing on the double flip was probably just not long enough," she said. "I only held it for a couple of seconds and then went. ... I feel great. I'm happy with the performance. ... I'm looking forward to Friday."

It was clear to others that Harding did not perform up to her standards.

"I feel bad for her," said former U.S. Olympian Jill Trenary. "After all she's been through, we'd like to forget it and focus on the skating. ... She was kind of lackluster, kind of like, 'I'm out here, but not really.'

"Her skating seemed to tell the world what she's been going through."

Several experts mentioned Harding's practice habits as one of her problems tonight. In the week she has been here, Harding has not once skated through either her short or long program without stopping.

Kerrigan, meanwhile, has been a model student, the Scotvolds said, not even stopping her program in practice Tuesday when her skate lace came untied.

"Everything that happened in practice was what happened on the ice," Wylie said.

While Harding will be fighting for respect Friday night, Kerrigan will be trying to win a gold medal after earning a bronze at the 1992 Olympics. More importantly, she hopes to exorcise the terrible memory of last year's world championships in Prague, in which she led after the short program, only to perform dreadfully in the free skate and fall to fifth overall.

"I guess I've dreamed about it," Kerrigan said of a night such as this. "It's more training than day-dreaming. This is hard work. Dreams won't get you here."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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