Kerrigan glides into first LILLEHAMMER '94

February 24, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

HAMAR, Norway -- All was perfect; all was forgotten.

Her rival sat in a box seat high above the ice. Hundreds of photographers ringed the rink, the whir of their cameras a chorus to every jump. Unarmed soldiers and policemen patrolled the corridors.

But for 2 1/2 minutes there was only the magic of a woman dressed in black chiffon and white silk, dancing, spinning and leaping across the ice, shedding the role of victim for the role of athlete, grabbing hold of the Winter Olympics and refusing to let go until the crowd stood and roared and unfurled American flags.

Last night, Nancy Kerrigan made the world forget a crime.

Under the greatest pressure imaginable, she skated and won the women's technical program at the Winter Games.

And watching it all was Tonya Harding, 10th overall, out of contention but not out of mind.

The confrontation had the look of opera, not athletics.

There was music, of course, and costumes, and stars with makeup and jewelry. And there was the intrigue of the rivals coming and going but rarely crossing paths.

Kerrigan, sidelined from competitive skating since being clubbed on the right knee Jan. 6 in Detroit, gave the performance of her career to set herself up for a gold-medal run in tomorrow's free-skating final, worth 66.7 percent of the overall score.

Harding, the American champion who has been implicated by her ex-husband in the assault on Kerrigan, stumbled on a combination jump and left the kiss-and-cry area wheezing and coughing from an asthma attack.

And in between the Americans were some of the greatest skaters in generations.

Oksana Baiul of Ukraine was second, Surya Bonaly of France was third, and Katarina Witt, the two-time Olympic champion from Germany, was sixth.

But this was about Kerrigan and Harding, two Americans with a score to settle.

Kerrigan, brown-haired, green-eyed, impeccably dressed, her face composed.

Harding, her blond hair pulled back in a French braid, her face a mask of rouge and fear, her dress strapless and show-girl red.

The contrasts could not have been more obvious.

Harding skated first, and as she came on to the ice, there was a smattering of boos to go with the cheers, and a man shouted out, "Give it up Tonya -- you're going to jail."

She fought her way to these Games by threatening to sue the U.S. Olympic Committee, which appeared ready to banish her after the confession of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.

She tried to wipe away the nervousness of the moment by praying with her coach Diane Rawlinson and choreographer, Erica Bakacas. Then, seconds before her program began, she clasped her hands together in another prayer.

But the tension was too great.

The 23-year-old from Portland, Ore., stepped out of her combination jump, one of eight required elements, and two-footed a double flip.

Her gold-medal quest was finished.

Under the stands, she tried to do an interview, but was overcome with an asthma attack, finally being led away behind a door marked No. 1. Twenty minutes later, she emerged and made her way to the box seat.

"I feel good; it went good," she said. "I was ready. I went out and did it."

Asked at what point she would feel successful in Norway, she said: "When I have a gold medal around my neck. That's when I'll feel like I've achieved what I came here for."

But there is only one American with a chance for gold -- Kerrigan.

The 24-year-old from Stoneham, Mass., stuck her jumps like darts on a bull's-eye. When she landed her combination -- a triple Lutz-double toe loop -- the crowd erupted, and her coaches, Mary and Evy Scotvold, screamed.

"I guess I dreamed about it," Kerrigan said.

Watching near the ice were her parents, Dan and Brenda. He roared. She kept her face close to a television set, an eye disorder reducing her view of her daughter to tiny black dots. "Through all of this, I never heard that girl say that she didn't want to skate," Dan Kerrigan said.

"I just knew she could do a good job," Brenda Kerrigan said.

Even Harding, sitting in the darkened box, saluted her rival, clapping 14 times.

Kerrigan delivered. It was wonderful stuff. Forget the outfits and the music and choreography, this is still sports, and for these few minutes Kerrigan was like Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals, Jack Nicklaus at the Masters, Joe Montana in a Super Bowl.

She was perfect.

"It's hard to explain the feelings you get," she said. "You can just really feel how excited everybody is for me, and I'm just really proud of myself."

For a night, she overshadowed a tawdry crime.

The woman who was sprawled on a red carpet in Detroit crying "Why me?" delivered a new gold-medal cry in Norway: Why not?

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