At the end of a long battle, Kerrigan faces one final foe LILLEHAMMER '94

February 25, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Understand this about Nancy Kerrigan's quest for an Olympic gold medal: The hard part hasn't even started.

Nailing her short program, as she did the other night, was no easy feat, particularly considering the events of the past seven weeks. But it is a rare night when Kerrigan doesn't nail her short program. She would be Michael Jordan if all she had to do was skate short programs.

"This was her strength, her forte," said Paul Wylie, her practice partner for a decade, after Kerrigan's brilliant short program Wednesday night. "It is the long program that has always given her problems."

The long program, or free skate, has undone Kerrigan in more competitions than she would care to remember. A year ago at the World Championships in Prague, for instance, she stood first after the short program, but skated her long program so poorly that she finished fifth.

Her free-skate failings have been so persistent that Kerrigan has grimly confessed to what she calls a case of "long program-itis."

If it reoccurs tonight, she won't win a gold medal skating against nerveless Oksana Baiul and elegant Surya Bonaly.

"Nancy has six triples [in her long program], and she pretty much needs to hit them all," Wylie said. "It's a ton of pressure."

Yet, as much as the pressure is there, Kerrigan has the lead, and the gold medal is hers if she delivers. It won't matter what Baiul and Bonaly do if Kerrigan conquers her "long program-itis."

And so Skategate finally comes down to this: Not Nancy vs. Tonya, but Nancy vs. Nancy.

It is a battle that Kerrigan finally joined after Prague, realizing she had to do something or settle for a career of bronze and silver medals. Not that that was so terrible. But she was capable of better. She started seeing a sports psychologist, who came up with what Scotvold termed an "amazing" discovery.

"We found out that Nancy was afraid to try to do a perfect long program in practice," Scotvold said, "because she was afraid she couldn't do it and afraid to know that she couldn't do it."

The long program is a draining 4 1/2 -minute routine requiring great gobs of stamina and concentration. Kerrigan basically let the daunting task rule her, rarely even attempting to skate through her entire long program in practice. Her shaky confidence ruined her in live competition.

The necessary antidote was obvious: She would have to learn to practice complete run-throughs. Master the long program. Beat it before it beat her.

"I had to start practicing competing at home, basically, so that it seemed normal when I went out to compete," Kerrigan said. "I learned to confront that [problem] better."

Scotvold said: "The break came in October. Ever since then it's like a dam broke. She does perfect long programs better than 50 percent of the time in practice. She broke through the barrier, and it made her pain threshold much higher. Since then her confidence factor has increased greatly."

She has skated in three competitions since Prague, winning two.

"My long program has been much more consistent this year, my best year by far," she said. "I train for it so much better now."

As well, the once-shy kid from Stoneham, Mass., is quickly turning into an adult, as 24-year-olds are wont to do. As supportive as her parents are, last year she moved out of their house and got her own place. Remember those confident, headstrong days? That's where Kerrigan's life is.

The combination of maturity and better training has elevated her skating to a level once regarded as beyond her reach by most in the sport.

She was always considered a solid tactical skater who relied on Hepburn-esque style more than substance. But the Kerrigan who skated Wednesday night could flat-out jump.

Somewhere along the line, the fragile, limited Nancy Kerrigan suddenly got real good.

"I expected her to do this," Scotvold said. "She's been terrific in practice every day. She's on top of her game."

Still, it is true that Baiul and Bonaly possess qualities Kerrigan can't match. Baiul is so nimble and light that she almost seems to float across the ice. Bonaly is an effervescent marvel.

But, make no mistake, this competition is all about Kerrigan. Her every move has been analyzed since Jan. 6.

Finally, after always standing in the shadow of another American skater -- Debi Thomas, Jill Trenary, Kristi Yamaguchi -- she is the center of attention.

Tonight's long program is a moment that will define her as no other in her skating life. It is the moment to which she has built since lacing up skates for the first time.

The issue on which the night will turn is whether she handles the stress; whether, on top of all the progress she made in a year, the sheer weirdness of her life since Jan. 6 has somehow buoyed her, made her feel stronger, capable of handling anything.

Here's betting she nails it.

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