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HARDING LEADS AT SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

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Overshadowed by the absence of champion Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding led after Friday's technical program in a subdued women's competition in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Kerrigan's withdrawal after being attacked by an unknown assailant left a noticeable void in the contest.Although Harding, the 1991 U.S. champion from Portland, Ore., performed a clean, athletic program that placed her first with all nine judges, she couldn't fill it.

Nicole Bobek of Chicago was second and Michelle Kwan of Torrance, Calif., third after the technical program, worth one-third of the total score. Former world champion Elaine Zayak finished a surprising fourth in her return to the amateur ranks.

The free skate will be held Saturday night, determining the two spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Although Kerrigan couldn't skate because of her severely bruised knee, skating officials said earlier Friday that the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist could still be placed on the team as a special selection.

That would mean bumping the second-place finisher. The team is to be announced after Saturday night's award ceremonies.

"I would accept it," Bobek said. "Nancy's been in it much longer and if the (officials) think she deserves to go, that's their choice."

"I think we'd accept it graciously," said Bobek's coach, Kathy Casey. "Nancy certainly has paid her dues. She's had good internationals and has skated well. If they chose to do that, I think we'd have our strongest team."

Harding, 23, began her program by hitting a big triple lutz-double toe loop combination and finished with a perfect double axel. The first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition when she did it in the 1991 nationals, Harding finished a disappointing fourth in last year's championships.

Looking fitter and steadier, Harding drew technical merit scores ranging from 5.7 to 5.9 on a 6.0-point scale.

"I actually think this topped Skate America, which I thought was my best," she said. "I had a lot of speed, a lot of confidence and everything just flowed right together."

Skating before Harding, Bobek was nearly flawless performing to lively Russian folk music. She also hit a triple lutz-double toe and double axel.

Because Harding has competed in two world championships, she appeared to have the edge over Bobek, 16, and Kwan, 13, going into the long program in the absence of Kerrigan.

"I was the underdog," Harding said. "No one expected me to do anything this year. I feel I have the experience. In my mind, I have a little bit of an edge."

Also on Friday, U.S. champions Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur withdrew from the ice dancing competition due to injury. Roca, of Rochester, N.Y., broke her wrist Wednesday during a warmup but still competed in the original dance less than three hours later.