For Eldredge, back condition tarnishes gold-medal dreams

February 12, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- He stands on the ice, his head bowed, his eyes closed, his Winter Olympics debut already turning into a nightmare.

He misses one triple jump. And then another. He twists two revolutions instead of three. His breath comes in short gasps.

And this is only practice.

What about tomorrow night? When the whole world is watching When the judges begin shaping a list of medal contenders. When the top men's figure skaters square off in a triple-jump exhibition.

This isn't the Olympics of Todd Eldredge's dreams. He expected to one day emerge as a champion, a performer who grew from second-hand hockey skates to a gold medal.

But now, he is trying to avoid embarrassing himself on a global stage. Imagine a quarterback missing an entire season, getting a new playbook, and then being asked to start a Super Bowl, and you have an idea of what Eldredge faces.

Eldredge is hurt. He is fashioning a free-skate program that he has never performed in competition. And all of this is happening, now, at the Olympics.

"The Olympics are something that I've always worked for," he said. "If you've got a goal in sight, the training you're doing has to have a reason."

Eldredge, the two-time U.S. champion from Chatham, Mass., is in trouble, and everyone in this tiny insular sport can see it. A back injury kept him out of last month's nationals in Orlando, Fla. But his third-place finish at the 1991 world championships helped him earn a pass from U.S. skating officials to the Olympics.

Still, there were rumors yesterday that Eldredge was on the verge of pulling out of the Games. His back problem, a congenital condition in which his vertebrae rub together, still causes him discomfort. But he squelched the doubts by landing a triple Axel, a 3 1/2 -revolution jump that separates the men from the boys in figure skating.

"I just wanted to uncork it," he said.

He'll have to do even better tomorrow night in the men's original program. The sport is in chaos. Injuries have hindered the training of three-time World Champion Kurt Browning of Canada, and world runner-up Viktor Petrenko.

"For the first time in a long time, it's a wide open race," Eldredge said.

And for a long time, Eldredge was viewed as the dark horse, a 20-year-old who had all the jumps, but needed only the artistic magic to move ahead of his rivals. He showed that style two years ago at the nationals, when he jumped and performed to "The Master of the House."

"You have to put together all the elements," he said. "The judges aren't looking for just one jump. They're looking for a mood, a style, a package."

Eldredge's skating story is as compelling as they come. From the outside, the sport looks to be the province of rich kids. But lately, it's more blue collar than mink, as families scramble for cash to keep careers afloat.

Eldredge is the fisherman's son from Cape Cod who started skating at age 5 1/2 . He could do the loveliest, liveliest spins on the ice, but every time his father, John, took him out on "The Scrod," he got sick.

"I just kind of watched him run the boat," he said. "I said, 'This is nice, can we turn around now?' "

He's a skater, not a swimmer.

Eldredge would go to rinks and watch the kids in the middle, the ones trying the jumps while everyone else was skating in circles.

"That's what I liked," he said. "That's what I wanted to do."

It was easy to finance a career at first. A pair of hockey skates cost $35. Lessons ran $25. But then the skates and lessons got more expensive, and so did the costumes.

"It was tough," John Eldredge said. "We never dreamed of how expensive the career would be."

Seven years ago, Eldredge's career was almost abandoned because there was little money to pay for the mortgage or put food on the table. So his hometown adopted Eldredge and his $50,000 career, financing it with bake sales and raffles and Saturday-night socials.

And then Eldredge's coach, Richard Callaghan, moved west, first to Colorado Springs, Colo., and then to San Diego. So instead of splitting a partnership, the Eldredges decided to split a family. Ruth Eldredge moving west to be with her son, John Eldredge staying back home to fish and raise their oldest son, Scott.

"I thought I would never split my family up for skating," Ruth Eldredge said. "Then I was faced with it. I didn't want to do it. But I did."

The Eldredges have sacrificed. Chatham has sacrificed.

"This story is the American way," John Eldredge said.

But it is a story in need of a happy ending. After a long summer and fall of skating exhibitions, going out on a world tour, Eldredge's back gave out two months ago. He tried rest. And it didn't work. He tried a quick bit of rehabilitation. And that didn't work, either. But now, he says he's fine. He says he can skate pain-free and win a medal.

"It wouldn't be mine alone," he said. "A lot of people would win that medal. The town of Chatham. My coach. There are a lot of people who have put in a lot of effort for me to compete."

And yet, watch him on the ice. The triples turn to doubles. The smile turns to a frown.

Friends come up to him and tell him, well, there is always 1994 and another Olympics.

"I hear it all the time," he says. "Oh, you're still young, you've got plenty of years left. I heard it when I was 18 when I won the nationals. But whenever an opportunity arises, you've got to take advantage of it. Age doesn't matter."

But health does.

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