ALBERTVILLE, France -- Five weeks ago, Paul Wylie thought his figure skating career was finished. He was in street clothes, preparing for disappointment at the U.S. National Championships in Orlando, Fla.
Suddenly, he was called to a medals platform by judges who had given him a reprieve -- and a ticket to the Winter Olympics.
Tonight, he will skate for gold.
Wylie, the 27-year-old Harvard graduate who has endured a career of disappointments and second-place finishes, is the only American with a chance to win a medal when the men's figure skating competition ends tonight.
This extraordinary turnaround provides the dramatic focus as 24 men prepare for a 4-minute, 30-second free skate, worth 67 percent of the overall score.
In reality, only four performers have a chance to emerge as a champion.
There is Viktor Petrenko of the Unified Team, winner of the original program whose path to the world championships has been blocked by his own free-skating glitches.
There is Petr Barna, of Czechoslovakia, second after the short program, a technician whose idea of style is to skate to a Hamlet theme wearing a black outfit with a skull emblazoned on the chest.
There is Kurt Browning, the three-time world champion, who has battled a back injury for months, and whose fall in the original program sent him tumbling to fourth. To win the gold, he must win the long program, while Petrenko finishes third, or worse.
"I'm going to need a lot of help," Browning said.
And there is Wylie, the last American left standing. When a pair of two-time U.S. champions, Christopher Bowman (seventh) and Todd Eldredge (ninth), failed to execute triple jumps in the original program, the way was opened for Wylie to rise to medal contention.
"I'm still getting used to all of this," Wylie said. "I can't believe that I'm skating in the last group. I'm just beside myself."
For the past two years, Wylie's flaw has been his performances in the original program, a technically demanding exercise of accuracy over artistry. He fell at the Trophy Lalique here in November. He stumbled again at the U.S. Nationals in January, but recovered in the long program to finish second and reach the Olympics.
"Paul's greatest confidence, his greatest ability, is in the long program. But he has never been in a position to get the scores he deserved for it," said Wylie's coach, Evy Scotvold. "I won't say that he can win. But he can skate clean."
Mary Scotvold, Wylie's choreographer, said: "I've been wanting the world to know what we see every day."
If Wylie can skate free of mistakes, he can complete the most improbable rise in the sport, from near-disaster at the nationals to a gold medal at the Olympics.
"I think I have proved a lot to myself," Wylie said. "That's why I wanted to come to the Olympics."