Raising the stakes to capture the gold Skating: Taking a different spin for U.S. and Olympic glory, Michael Weiss is banking on a revolutionary leap to propel him among the world's elite.

January 06, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. -- The recreational skaters had cleared the rink at the Fairfax Ice Arena last Friday afternoon. The Zamboni had smoothed the ice. Music by Beethoven was piped in, and Michael Weiss began to warm up, getting himself mentally stoked for another try at the most challenging moment of his career.

He was preparing to make history.

This was unofficial, of course. It was just a practice session leading up to this week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, beginning tonight in Philadelphia and, ultimately, to next month's Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. But in a sport where points are deducted for the most indiscernible imperfection, practice literally makes perfect.

Especially if you are trying to do something nobody has ever done in competition.

"Watch this," Greg Weiss said, leaning over the sideboard as the youngest of his three children skated by. "He's going to do it."

The quadruple toe loop became the signature jump for Weiss at last year's nationals in Nashville, Tenn., but according to those who counted most, the signature was a tad sloppy. Though to the naked eye it looked as if he had landed it cleanly -- in other words on the edge of one skate and totally balanced -- those belonging to the judges ruled otherwise after looking at videotape. They said that the edge of his other skate brushed the ice on descent.

Todd Eldredge took his fourth U.S. Championship.

Weiss, who was fifth going into the free skate, went home in second place.

L "It was," Weiss said a few days later, "very disappointing."

Instead of attempting the same nearly impossible jump that only a handful of foreign male skaters have tried successfully, Weiss is raising the stakes with a quad lutz. It is figure skating's 'N equivalent of the 62-home run season, the 101-point basketball game, the 24-foot pole vault. Maybe even more revolutionary.

It requires jumping off the outside edge of the right skate without taking the quarter or half-turn used to launch the quad toe loop, then taking four complete revolutions off the ice rather than the 3 1/2 or 3 3/4 mid-air spins. It is a jump that could either continue to propel Weiss toward the top of the list of legitimate Olympic contenders or push him back among the wannabes.

"Right now I'm not one of the favorites at the Olympics," Weiss said after another recent practice session. "At the Olympics, there are going to be three or four [former] world champions. I have a pretty good reputation among the judges for having good style, so I have to do something special to put me over the top."

Weiss has inched toward the periphery of the sport's highest perch, having completed the steady climb from U.S. Junior champion in 1993 to World Junior champion in 1994 to his current status as a solid second behind Eldredge among American male skaters headed into tonight's short program at ++ the CoreStates Center. Barring a major upset in this week's competition, Eldredge and Weiss will represent the United States in Nagano.

"At this point, I feel a lot more ready earlier than I was last year, and things went well last year," said Weiss, 21, who finished seventh at last year's world championships after his narrow miss in Nashville. "So I'm expecting good things this year. As the competition gets closer, you go out and work on just landing every jump. You basically try to peak correctly."

For Weiss, it means landing all of the seven other triples in his long program as well as the quad lutz. But since the lutz comes first, less than a minute into the five-minute routine, it could mean the difference between just swinging for the fences and jacking one out.

"The lutz is so monumental for me," said Weiss, who admittedly hits only one of 10 of them perfectly clean in practice. "If I were to go out there and hit it, it would just be a big accomplishment. It's getting consistent, but I thrive on lot of adrenalin at the competition."

Weiss is different from a lot of the world's elite male skaters, taking almost a jock mentality into a sport where few ventured athletically outside the rink. He grew up playing soccer, football and hockey in Montgomery County. He discovered skating at age 9 after tagging along with one of his two older sisters to a rink in Wheaton.

"I was good at something finally," said Weiss, who by 13 had finished second in the novice division of the U.S. Championships. "It was an attention-getter. People took notice and I wanted to do it more."

At 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, Weiss combines more athleticism into his programs than many of his competitors. It was suggested in a recent book about the sport that Weiss has gone to great length in his programs to portray a different image.

"Our family being athletic and [Michael] even now being into body-building, macho is an overstatement but he's always had that manly type image and that's what he tries to project in his programs," said Greg Weiss, a former world-class gymnast who competed in the 1964 Olympic Games.

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