Harding sets herself up as the top rival

January 10, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

DETROIT -- Tonya Harding skates with a swagger and wins with a smile.

Her passions run from shooting pool to rebuilding auto transmissions.

And in a demure sport where even the skaters who are ripped off by judges grin and bear it, Harding is not afraid to voice her opinion.

"I'm the Charles Barkley of figure skating," she said.

And she likes it that way.

Saturday night, Harding won her second U.S. figure skating title and set herself up for a gold-medal run at next month's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

No one, not even injured star Nancy Kerrigan, who received the second American berth at the Olympics, can stand in Harding's way, she said.

"I don't see anyone as my top competitor," Harding said. "I see myself as my top competitor. I'm the person I have to beat."

It's a good thing there is at least one confident performer who will be making the trip to Norway.

After the weeklong championships, there no longer are any sure things in U.S. skating.

From an act of violence that prevented Kerrigan from competing to a competitive upset by Scott Davis over Brian Boitano, the normally predictable world of skating was in tumult.

The man who bashed Kerrigan on the right knee after Thursday's practice may have knocked her from the competition, but he has not yet kept her from the Winter Games.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association's International Competition Committee awarded Kerrigan the second Olympic berth, eight minutes after Saturday night's competition ended. Kerrigan heard the news while undergoing a drug test.

"I'm glad they got it over with quickly," Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging test today in Boston. If no further damage is discovered under her kneecap, she should be skating within the week.

She still must perform for a five-member USFSA panel by Feb. 6 to be cleared for the Olympics. If Kerrigan can't go to Norway, then Michelle Kwan, 13, second in the women's final, will take her place.

"My knee will tell me if I'm capable or not," said Kerrigan, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist. "My coaches and I will be very honest. But I've never been more ready in all my life."

Harding, too, said she is ready to stake a claim for Olympic gold. At the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, she was the outsider in the medal race, finishing fourth.

Two years older and presumably wiser, Harding, 23, has added a layer of artistic polish to her technically precise performances.

Her winning program, skated to music from "Jurassic Park," included five triple jumps. But Harding left out her axel, the toughest jump in women's skating, and she also did not land a triple in combination.

Whether she has enough style and substance to win a gold in Norway against the likes of Oksana Baiul of Ukraine and Surya Bonaly of France is debatable.

But Harding is at least healthy and confident. "I'm going to Norway to win," she said.

Harding could emerge as the only American medal winner in Norway.

Although Kerrigan was having the best pre-Olympic season of all, her health and often-fragile competitive psyche will have to be rebuilt.

Boitano, too, will have to reshape his Olympic efforts after being upset by Davis.

At 30, with a sore knee and a long program not yet up to the technical standards of the 1990s, Boitano must go back to the practice rink. If he doesn't add a second triple axel to his long program, then it is unlikely he can claim a second Olympic gold medal.

"I have to get it through my head that I needed the other axel," said Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion.

"In the pros, you don't repeat jumps. But here, you have to."

Davis also remains unsure of his abilities. He said he did not believe he could beat Boitano. Davis is entering an Olympics in which he will be a heavy underdog to reigning champion Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine and Canadians Elvis Stojko and Kurt Browning.

"I'm open to anything," Davis said.

In dance and pairs, the Americans will need a miracle to come away with any medals.

Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow will be looking to crack the top 10 in dance. Jeni Meno and Todd Sand, the best of the three American pairs teams, are aiming for a top-six finish.

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