Competition's hot, skaters are cool

FRIENDLY RIVALRY

February 21, 1992|By New York Times News Service

ALBERTVILLE, France -- More striking than their styles, their jumps or their success is their calm. As roommates at the Winter Olympics, Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan have left the impression they are more intense rivals trying to out-calm each other than out-skate each other.

With the singles title in women's figure skating to be decided tonight, that's quite an accomplishment.

Both skated sublime original programs Wednesday night to hold the top two positions among 29 women. It was almost expected of Yamaguchi, the 20-year-old world and national champion from Fremont, Calif., who won the leading scores from all nine judges.

It was not so of Kerrigan, a 22-year-old skater from Stoneham, Mass., whose placement helped keep Yamaguchi a safe distance from the woman regarded as her most serious challenger, Midori Ito of Japan.

Ito fell badly in her original program and ranked fourth behind Surya Bonaly of France, whose third-place finish raised eyebrows about as high as Kerrigan's finish had.

If the programs of the Americans resembled each other in elegant presentation, their demeanors in the Games have been even more similar. Both have been unfazed by success in their first Olympics, in part for their ability to seal themselves off from distraction by some inner steel curtain.

"She's able to block out a lot," Christy Ness, Yamaguchi's coach, said yesterday. "She doesn't think too much about things. She knows what she wants."

Kerrigan has protected herself by refusing to consider the possibility that she might finish with a gold medal. "I've done that before," she said. "It kind of freaked me out. I don't bother doing that anymore. Medals aren't everything. The performance of a lifetime means a whole lot more than winning a medal."

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