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Tie goes to winners

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LOS ANGELES ? In one of the most bizarre men's figure skating competitions in recent history, the short program competition at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships ended in a tie between quad king Timothy Goebel and veteran Todd Eldredge.

Goebel, the only contender in Tuesday's event to land a clean quadruple jump, had a freak stumble during a footwork sequence while Eldredge skated a cleaner, albeit quad-free program. The judges' marks met in the middle ? Goebel and Eldredge both won four judges, with the tie-breaking mark going to Matt Savoie. Savoie ended up finishing third, followed by an up-and-coming skater, Johnny Weir.

"What's with these ties?" Goebel joked. "We had two at the Grand Prix Final, and now this."

This tie ? the first since 1991, when the current competition structure was implemented ? cast an even thicker cloud of tension over an already-anxious event: this year's national championship doubles as the Olympic qualifying competition.

Only the top three finishers here will go on to represent the U.S. in Salt Lake City. Those spots will be decided at Thursday's free skate competition.

However, a strong showing in the short program gives a skater a decided advantage ? if one of them wins the long program, he wins the event. A skater in, say, fourth or fifth place must rely on mistakes from other skaters to win.

Goebel said he was happy with the result given his baffling mistake late in the program.

"I have no idea what happened," he said. "Maybe I got a little ahead of myself, trying to push through the program. But other than that little disaster, I thought it was a good program. As a whole, I thought it was my best short (program) of the year."

Eldredge, who skated early in the draw, opted to skate a conservative program to ensure a top-three finish.

"I went out and basically did what I wanted to do," Eldredge said. "I wanted to skate clean. You don't win a competition in the short program, but you can lose it. I just wanted to go out and skate clean and put myself in contention for Thursday."

The same strategy worked for Savoie, who has made a slow comeback from a groin injury suffered this summer. The Illinois native has no quad in his arsenal and has built a reputation as a steady, decidedly modest skater.

"I don't feel confident about anything," Savoie said. "I just need to keep focusing on everything I need to accomplish. This is the first realistic chance I've had in my career (to make an Olympic team). There's just so much hype about it. But I never know where I'm going to end up, really. So it's always a new discovery."

Tuesday, Savoie discovered he is in good position to qualify for the Olympic team.

Two-time national champion Michael Weiss didn't fare as well. He took a chance by attempting a quad on his opening jump ? Weiss has only landed two clean quads in his entire career ? but fell. The rest of the program unraveled from there. He finished fifth going into Thursday's finale.

"I don't know, I don't know," Weiss said later. "I felt great. I didn't skate well. I can't make any sense of it."

He'll get his last chance Thursday. And America will have its Olympic team.

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com