• U.S.

1992 Winter Olympics: When Dreams Come True

6 minute read
Martha Duffy

“It’s something I’ve dreamed of ever since I put on skates as a little girl.” (She is still little, shoe size 3.) At age 20, Kristi Yamaguchi, of Fremont, Calif., faced the international press, blissfully fingering her gold medal. She had nothing else to say. No thoughts about what she would do next year, or what she would do tomorrow. She had just made it through the arduous course of a fairy tale: pluck vs. luck.

The competition ended exactly as it should have. Yamaguchi was the most consistent athlete and freshest stylist. Skating to Lecuona’s Malaguena, she showed the delicacy and pace that make her a joy to watch. In the long — 4- min. — format she fumbled one triple jump, but everyone else in contention did at least that. In the current high-vaulting, teeter-totter world of skating, to jump is to survive, to land upright is to prevail.

Yamaguchi withstood a strong challenge from Japan’s Midori Ito, who lifted the crowd as she courageously hurtled her way to a silver medal after placing a disappointing fourth in the original program. The most famous athlete in her country, Ito had earlier seemed almost crushed by the weight of her flag and the expectations back home. The bronze went to Nancy Kerrigan of Stoneham, Mass., an elegant, imperturbable skater who made a characteristic decision to scale back her jumps in her long program.

The rink at Albertville was the scene of powerful grace and perfection all week long. But the best and most innovative skating of the Olympics came in the earlier ice-dancing competition. The Unified Team’s Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko took the gold decisively with a bold, sexy program, while France’s celebrity couple, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, were somewhat off form and had to settle for silver. Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin, also from the Unified Team, skated lightly and impudently to the bronze.

For Yamaguchi, Olympic glory is the culmination of a single-minded 14-year quest. She is a fourth-generation American, raised in Fremont, where her father is a dentist. Kristi was born with clubfeet, but the condition was corrected, and by six she was on the ice for keeps. For years she was a superior pairs skater as well and often competed solo with scant practice. It may be a result of giving up the dual assignment, or moving to Edmonton, Alberta, for training, or perhaps the onset of maturity, but in the past year or so she has forged a fluent artistic identity and put aside the more obvious tricks that come easily to her.

Away from the rink Yamaguchi is reserved, but not shy. Says U.S. coach Don Laws: “Kristi has the ideal temperament for a skater. She trusts her coach, her parents and her program.” She has already been bitten by the ice-show bug after a brief tour with a group sponsored by Campbell’s soup. “I just got a little taste,” she says, “but it was great — the travel, the crowds, being with other skaters in a noncompetitive atmosphere. Just like a family.”

Not all the week’s highlights were produced by medalists. France made a particularly strong and colorful showing, giving notice that the country is building a formidable ice machine. In dance, the young Dominique Yvon and Frederic Pallvel skated an expert and provocative free program. In the women’s event, Laetitia Hubert’s short program showed a jazzy, blatantly dramatic style, although she faltered badly in the long program. But the crowd pleaser was Surya Bonaly, whose style — or lack of it — is sure to start arguments. Attired by couturier Christian Lacroix in bullfighting red and black, she tore through a toreador program that was flawed but feisty. Bonaly doesn’t so much skate as pump her way around the ice. Her jumps are frequent and fearless; her spins, often with the free leg extended at a rakish angle, are — well, unorthodox. She makes careful skaters look dull.

To a disappointing degree the women’s contest turned on triple jumps, especially the Axel. Ito’s losing struggle with this nemesis cost her any chance of a gold medal. The best U.S. jumper, Tonya Harding, may have lost her ability to land one. In pursuing this icy grail, both women gave up a lot of their natural poise and fizz. Are the mighty jumps skewing solo competitions? A few routines, such as Yamaguchi’s short program, still explore the possibilities of blades on ice. But too often the spins and footwork look like connections between jumps.

That may explain why the ice-dancing competition was the most exciting and dramatic event. At least the performers are not preoccupied with completing a fiendish maneuver on one foot. No jumps are allowed in dance. No radical lifts or throws either. All three winners performed stunning programs; all reflected imagination, ingenuity and athletic zest. Despite the recondite rules that supposedly govern the field, it seems that much of the creative thinking in figure skating is developing in dance. The entire sport is reaching the stage where choreographers are at least equal in importance to coaches, and dance is leading the way.

Klimova and Ponomarenko so enchanted the judges that all but one forgot that they in fact bent or broke several rules. Their avidly erotic dance, set to a souped-up version of Bach’s Air on the G String, highlighted his physical strength and her pre-Raphaelite beauty. Like most Russian competitors, they are masters of skating basics — firm stroking, deep edges.

Despite Christopher Dean’s gutsy choreography for the Duchesnays, it was not their night. Lacking the finesse that the Russians’ ballet and mime training provide, they must go on the attack and challenge judges and spectators. But the couple looked listless in their West Side Story routine. Later the usually voluble Isabelle was silent (owing to a sore throat), but Paul chafed against their decision to obey the rules: “France wanted a gold medal, and we wanted to stay innovative. We tried to find the middle ground, and you see the results.” But the truth is that Klimova-Ponomarenko’s love story was more attractive and ambitious than the Duchesnays’ west-side story.

Bobbing up like a false leap year, 1994 will see another Winter Olympics. In skating it should be a fascinating competition because the sport is clearly in transition. Will the jumpers take over solo events, Yamaguchi and Kerrigan notwithstanding? Will the ice dancers retain their dynamic? Will bright choreographic stars be born? To all three questions the likely answer is yes, but stay tuned.

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