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Five-Time U.S. Champion Eldredge Knows His Way

January 08, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a sport gone mad for spectacular quadruple jumps and garish costumes, Todd Eldredge is a pair of loafers in a rack of stiletto-heeled black leather boots.

There's a thrill in wearing those heels, just as there's a thrill in watching world figure skating champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia perform a quadruple-triple-double combination, or Russia's Alexei Yagudin and U.S. champion Tim Goebel soar into the air on their quads. But there's also a fear they will crash in a painful heap, destroying the magic.

Like those classic loafers, Eldredge is the comfortable fallback who never goes out of style.

The five-time U.S. champion and six-time world medalist is among the masters of the underappreciated art of spinning, but he has landed only two quadruple jumps in competition, at last season's Masters of Figure Skating and Midwest Sectionals. If that's a dozen or so fewer quads than his rivals have landed, who can say what they'll be doing eight or 10 years from now, when they're 30, as he is?

While Yagudin, Plushenko and Goebel streak across figure skating's landscape like comets, stretching the sport's technical limits, Eldredge plugs away, steady and true. When others crash around him, the Chatham, Mass., native picks up the pieces, as he did in winning a bronze medal at last year's World Championships, a silver at the national championships and a bronze at Skate Canada in November.

It's entirely possible that scenario will be repeated at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, allowing Eldredge to win the Olympic medal he has chased since 1992.

It's not too big a stretch to picture first-time Olympian Plushenko alienating judges with his pelvis-thrusting antics and fragmented music, as he did in finishing second to Yagudin at last month's Grand Prix final at Kitchener, Canada. Or to imagine Yagudin working himself into too high a state of anxiety to skate his best, as he did at the Goodwill Games in Australia last autumn.

And Goebel, who has undeniably advanced his artistry while training with Coach Frank Carroll in El Segundo, might not have yet persuaded international judges he is a complete enough skater to merit a medal in his Olympic debut.

Without too much difficulty, the planets could align so Eldredge--even without a quad--could win the Olympic medal that eluded him in 1998, when he faltered in the long program and finished fourth, and in 1992, when he had a back injury and finished 10th. Judges know him and respect his attention to the fundamentals of the sport, and it's not farfetched to think they might be inclined to reward him with a bronze medal.

Eldredge's coach of more than 20 years, Richard Callaghan, has heard that speculation. But Callaghan, whom Eldredge has followed from Rochester, N.Y., to Philadelphia to Colorado Springs, Colo., to San Diego to their current base of Rochester Hills, Mich., doesn't limit Eldredge's sights to the third step of the podium.

"I think that's what everyone is thinking," said Callaghan, who coached Tara Lipinski to a gold medal at Nagano in 1998. "I just know

"Everyone should have one [quad] in their arsenal. Whether under the pressure of the Olympic Games everyone does it, that remains to be seen."

Eldredge smiles easily when asked if the competition at Salt Lake City will be between the two Russians.

"How many guys are there supposed to be [in the competition]? Twenty-four? Then there are 24 guys who have a chance," he said. "I don't see it being a 1-2 battle. Before the 1992 Olympics, it was supposed to be between Kurt [Browning] and Viktor [Petrenko], and Paul Wylie snuck into second place [between Petrenko and Petr Barna]. There are a lot of good skaters. On any given day, anyone can get in there and get a medal."

To get to Salt Lake City, Eldredge must finish in the top three at this week's U.S. championships, which will determine the Olympic figure skating team. He will begin that quest today at Staples Center when he skates his short program.

The 2-minute 40-second routine includes eight required elements and can kill the chances of competitors who botch one of those spins or jumps. It counts for 33% of the final score. The men will perform their long programs, which account for the rest of their scores, Thursday.

Two Olympic spots are expected to go to Eldredge and Goebel. Michael Weiss, who won the U.S. title in 1999 and 2000 while Eldredge took a sabbatical from Olympic-eligible competition, is likely to vie with Matt Savoie for the other berth.

Sentiment will be on the side of Eldredge, who has represented the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club since he trained in San Diego and was awarded a lifetime membership for winning the bronze medal at the 1991 World Championships. Although he has had an admittedly bumpy season that included error-filled performances at Skate Canada and the Trophee Lalique competitions, he's determined to make his 12th appearance at the U.S. championships a memorable one.

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