ORLANDO, FLA — ORLANDO, Fla. -- Todd Eldredge dreamed of being an Olympian the first time he laced up a pair of used hockey skates and performed a few rough and ragged spins on the ice.
He was 5 years old then, the son of a Chatham, Mass., fisherman embarking on a long, expensive journey through the world of amateur figure skating. In 1991, by the age of 20, he had won his second U.S. championship and matured into a world champion bronze medalist.
But yesterday, he came up against the reality that a lower back injury he sustained two weeks ago could snuff out his Olympic dream. He was advised by his physician to forgo defending his title when the short program of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships begins tomorrow night at the Orlando Arena.
"It's really hard to deal with," Eldredge said. "In my mind, I'm thinking, 'If I don't compete, my year will be over and I will never compete in the Olympics.' "
Eldredge is expected to decide today whether to compete for one of the three Olympic spots. If he pulls out, he could still be granted a waiver into next month's Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France.
"Of course he has a chance [to be an Olympian]," said Margaret Faulkner, of Ann Arbor, Mich., head of the U.S. Figure Skating Association's 43-member international committee.
The committee retains the power of placing an ailing defending champion on a world or Olympic team. A verdict won't be reached, however, until after Saturday's men's final.
"We would have to discuss this," Faulkner said. "Todd is a world bronze medalist. He is one of the main skaters in the world."
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering is seemingly the dominant drama to be played out in this unusual setting for figure skating. It may be 70 degrees in the city made famous by Mickey Mouse, but inside the Orlando Arena, there are all the usual elements of a figure skating championship: ice, intrigue and infighting.
In the ladies competition, the reigning world champion medalists -- Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan -- should gain the three Olympic qualifying spots.
World champion bronze medalists Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand, in first place after last night's opening competition, are due to battle Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval, in third after the orginal program, for the pairs gold.
Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow are favored to retain their dance title.
All along, the men's competition was expected to dominate the championships. Christopher Bowman, Paul Wylie, Mark Mitchell and Eldredge were poised to scramble for the three Olympic places.
The final result could be crafted behind the closed doors of a committee meeting room.
"I think Todd should be given credit for his performance at the World Championships," said his coach, Richard Callaghan. "If he's going to skate and get injured, then it's not worth competing. And I don't want to see him skate poorly."
Eldredge has a congenital lower back condition that first flared up during the 1989 U.S. Championships in Baltimore. Joints in his lower back appear to be pulling away from the vertebrae. Rushing to prepare for these nationals, Eldredge wrenched his back in training.
Dr. Arthur Pappas, a Worcester, Mass., orthopedic surgeon who is the Boston Red Sox's team physician, told Eldredge to stop skating and prepare for a few weeks of rest. Pappas also informed Eldredge that he could recuperate in time to compete at the Olympics.
"The injury makes things 10 times harder," Eldredge said. "Everything I do, I'll always wonder if it hurts. It's a mind game."
Eldredge isn't the only ailing Olympic hopeful.
Three-time world champion Kurt Browning has withdrawn from the Canadian Championships because of a slipped disk. Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine, second at the 1991 world event, also incurred a back strain and finished third in the championships of the former Soviet Union.
"There are a lot of wild cards out there," Wylie said. "Kurt Browning isn't invincible. Viktor Petrenko isn't invincible. And Todd Eldredge isn't invincible. It will all come down to one week at the Olympics. And that's exciting."