Skater lacks edge in political arena Kwiatkowski battles more than rivals in bid for Olympic spot

January 10, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- She is something of an anomaly in her sport, a world-class skater who spent as much time in the classroom growing up as she did on the rink. Tonia Kwiatkowski is known more for completing her education with a college degree than her career with an Olympic medal.

Just as Kwiatkowski would change nothing about the way she has spent the past 18 years of her life, the process of selecting the three female skaters who will represent the United State in Nagano, Japan, next month won't change, either.

It's politics rather than paying dues.

It's marketing over not making mistakes.

Skating in her final U.S. Figure Skating championships, Kwiatkowski knows what she has to do in tonight's long program at the CoreStates Center.

"I have to skate well," Kwiatkowski, 26, said after practice yesterday. "After that, it's kind of out of my hands."

Third after the short program Thursday afternoon, Kwiatkowski has to maintain or improve her position and hope that reigning world and U.S. champion Tara Lipinski moves up from fourth into the top three. If those things happen, Kwiatkowski could make her first Olympic team.

And if not?

"I'd be disappointed," she said, "but I think I've had a great skating career. I've been to 13 national championships, I've been on the national team since 1986. I've experienced a lot of things a lot of people my age haven't. And if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it the same way."

She did it differently than many of the sport's most celebrated skaters, in particular Lipinski. She went to school and wound up getting two degrees from Baldwin-Wallace in 1994. She also has had the same coach -- former Olympic champion Carol Heiss-Jenkins -- for her entire career.

The daughter of a Cleveland truck driver, Kwiatkowski is sort of a blue-collar skater. It's not surprising that her athletic hero is Cal 00 Ripken.

"Tonia might not be as flamboyant, but she's an extremely hard worker and she's persevered," said Glyn Watts, who has worked, along with Heiss-Jenkins, as one of Kwiatkowski's coaches for the past 11 years.

"She sometimes hasn't gotten what she deserved, but she's an inspiration to a lot of young skaters."

Kwiatkowski's career has been a bit star-crossed. Early on, when she was a terrific jumper, the sport rewarded skaters more for compulsory figures. That procedure was abandoned in 1990. There was also the competition of her peers, who included Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

And then there was the matter of injuries.

The most serious, perhaps, was an egg-sized cyst on one of her ankles last year at the nationals. She wound up sixth in Nashville, Tenn., and there were some who thought she might retire. But she had long pointed at 1998 -- and Nagano -- as her going-away party.

"With my injury last year, it didn't bother me in the short program, but I was in pain during the long program," Kwiatkowski said. "It's nice to be healthy at nationals."

Her performance Thursday afternoon was crisp and clean. Skating first among the 17 here, Kwiatkowski raised the bar for the rest of the competitors. She would wind up behind both Michelle Kwan and Nicole Bobek, and ahead of Lipinski, whose failed triple flip caused her to fall to fourth. Those three were considered the favorites to go to Nagano.

The third spot will likely come down to Kwiatkowski or Bobek, a former U.S. champion also looking to go to her first Olympics. Bobek might have the advantage. Along with Lipinski and Kwan, Bobek has been included in "Dream Team" ads by Campbell's Soup.

When reminded that her picture wasn't on the label of the soup can, Kwiatkowski said, "We can change that."

By the time she skates tonight, Kwiatkowski will know what she has to do to beat Bobek. But considering that she skates last, so will the judges know how to score her. The odds are stacked against Kwiatkowski, but they have been against her before.

And what would she tell the selection committee, given the chance?

"My record in international competition is good," said Kwiatkowski, whose resume is dotted with seconds and thirds.

"I've represented the U.S. well. I've been a good representative. I've gone to school [college]. I'm just doing something I love."

What Kwiatkowski doesn't like is the way she has been portrayed in recent years.

"A couple of years ago, somebody called me a rickety old 24-year-old," she said.

"That's ridiculous. If I couldn't do the elements that younger girls do, I wouldn't be here. I'm not here just to hang around the rink. I work hard every day."

Phil Kwiatkowski would like the previous 18 years of his daughter's life to pay off.

He is here to watch his daughter's last nationals.

"This is the last one, so it feels a little different," he said the other day, his voice choking with emotion. "You just really hope it works out for her. She's worked so hard."

It might not make a difference in a sport in which politics often overshadows the paying of dues, where in this case marketing counts more than making mistakes.

U.S. championships

What: U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Where: CoreStates Center, Philadelphia

When: Event ends tonight

TV: Chs. 2, 7 -- 4: 30 p.m.- 6 p.m., ice dancing free skate; 8 p.m.-11 p.m., pairs free skate (tape) and ladies free skate.

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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