LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Men's short program preceded pairs free skate competition at the World Figure Skating Championships on Wednesday, which meant Todd Eldredge, Elvis Stojko and Alexei Urmanov went before the fall . . . and the fall . . . and the fall . . . and, well, did anybody inside the Malley Sports Center have the stomach to actually keep count?
The German pair of Mandy Wotzel and Ingo Steuer fell once, nearly twice, and won the gold medal.
The Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze skated last with a chance to win everything and fell four times in three minutes, cannonballing all the way to ninth place.
Only one of the last four pairs stayed on their feet for the full 4 1/2 minutes, but Jenni Meno and Todd Sand did so many other things wrong that they finished out of the medals for the first time in three years, settling for fifth overall--and second among U.S. teams.
When they singled a side-by-side double axel after Sand doubled a triple toeloop, Meno and Sand lost the bronze medal and also fourth place to American rivals Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen.
The door for a silver medal or better was open for Meno and Sand, but as their coach, John Nicks, put it, "We didn't make the adjustments we needed to take advantage of the other competitors' performances."
So Wotzel and Steuer wobbled their way to the gold medal, Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov of Russia (one fall) took silver and another Russian team, Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev, catapulted from sixth to third simply by remaining upright for a full routine.
"I don't know what happened," Ina said. "Maybe everyone was tired, it was a long day, who knows?"
Said Dungjen: "This is the biggest event of the year. You can feel the tension in the locker room before you go out there. Your whole year basically takes place in 4 1/2 minutes on the ice.
"People get nervous. They make mistakes."
Coming on the heels of a sterling afternoon performance by Eldredge, Stojko and Co., the pairs' flop-a-thon Wednesday evening was like cleansing the palate with liver and onions.
The men's short program was an exercise in one-upmanship, with Eldredge skating what his coach called "the best performance I've ever seen him give" and daring anyone to beat it.
Several came close, but only Urmanov succeeded. Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic gold medalist, and Eldredge, the reigning world champion, begin tonight's long program ranked 1-2, followed closely by Ilia Kulik of Russia and Stojko.
American Michael Weiss landed three triple jumps and completed his other elements without a glitch--a solid program for a world championship rookie-- but against this high-caliber field, such a performance was only good enough for ninth.
"It was a tough start to the competition," Urmanov said. "So many great programs."
Eldredge's might have been the best, flawed only by its early starting time. Eldredge skated third, out of 31 competitors, and the judges artificially blunted his scores, wanting to save room on the scoreboard for potential superlative performances that might come later in the day.
It's a lousy way to do business, but that's figure skating.
"To judge someone who skated third against someone who skated 30th is very difficult," Eldredge's coach, Richard Callaghan, said. "I thought Todd deserved to be first. He skated the best short program I've ever seen from him.
"The flow, the speed of the spins, the quality of the jumps. If he'd skated later, he definitely would have had higher marks."
Either way, Eldredge liked his position heading into tonight's final round.
"I was second [after the short program] last year too," he said. "Hopefully, I'll have a similar result."
At least three skaters angling to dethrone Eldredge--Urmanov, Kulik and Stojko--promised to throw quadruple jumps into their long programs.
And your move, Mr. Eldredge?
"No, I don't think I'll do a quad," Eldredge said, at least for the record.
"I'm going to go out and skate the best long program I can, hit all eight triples and hope that's enough to win it."
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World Figure Skating Championships
Schedule for the World Figure Skating Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland:
* TODAY--Original dance; men's free skate (long program); men's medals awarded.
* FRIDAY--Women's short program; dance free skate (long program); dance medals awarded.
* SATURDAY--Women's free skate (long program); women's medals awarded.