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LOS ANGELES ? Eldredge. Goebel. Weiss.
Three national figure skating champions, and now America's Olympic medal hopefuls.
Thirty-year old Todd Eldredge stunned the Staples Center crowd by winning his sixth national title here Thursday at the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships ? 11 years after he won his first senior-level championship. In doing so, he defeated reigning national champion Timothy Goebel and claimed the top spot on the men's Olympic team.
Eldredge admitted he skated conservatively to ensure a ticket to Salt Lake City. However, though he elected not to try a quadruple jump and had a few minor bobbles, his interpretation of the "Lord of the Rings" soundtrack was enough to win the judges' votes and allow Eldredge the chance to fulfill a dream lost in Nagano.
"I've had a goal and a dream to skate my best performance at the Olympic Games," he said. "And I haven't done that yet."
Eldredge had a disappointing outing at the 1998 Games, finishing just off the medals podium in fourth. Despite his age and the lure of the professional circuit, Eldredge decided to maintain his Olympic eligibility. The Salt Lake City Games will be his last Olympic effort.
Goebel secured the second spot on the team with a jam-packed "American in Paris" program. Despite a fall on his quadruple toe loop, Goebel went on to land one other quad jump, two triple Axels, and five triple jumps. However, the artistic mark proved his nemesis once again and dropped him to second place.
"None of the three of us had our best skate tonight," Goebel said. "I know that all three of us can skate a lot stronger, both short and long (programs). And we have another month to train."
Michael Weiss, a two-time national champion, fought hard during his Puccini long program to qualify for the last spot on the team. He managed to recover from an early fall to land one quadruple jump (two-footed) in combination and five triple jumps. The higher level of difficulty, and errors from Matt Savoie, moved him up from fifth place after the short program to third.
"After the short program, going the way that it did, my goals changed," Weiss said. "I just wanted to skate a program that would get me on this team. I just wanted to be on this team and give myself another shot."
Savoie, third after the short program, fell on a triple Axel to finish fourth.
The ladies' race to Salt Lake City began with an all-out brawl in the short program, where the top four women delivered Olympic-caliber performances. Only three will make the Olympic team.
Five-time national champion Michelle Kwan skated a steady interpretation of her 1998 Olympic program, set to music by Rachmaninoff. Though it may have lacked the speed and vigor of past years, Kwan said she was satisfied with her performance, which included a triple Lutz-double toe loop combination, double Axel and triple flip.
"Just to do a good performance is very satisfying," she said. "I felt a little shaky on the double Axel. There are things I could make a little better, a little stronger."
Surprises followed, however, when reigning world bronze medalist Sarah Hughes was beaten for the second spot by an inspired Sasha Cohen. Cohen, who sat out most of last season with a back injury, skated what may have been the most dynamic program of the evening while completing the same jumps as Kwan.
"It was a great skate for me," Cohen said. "I trained very hard for this, and I'm pleased with my performance. I don't think I could have done much better."
Still, it was a safe program for Cohen, who made news earlier this season when she announced she would attempt the quadruple Salchow in competition. But after a series of falls during the season, Cohen said this week she would take the quad out of her program to better her chances to make the Olympic team. Based on Thursday's results, the strategy may prove wise; however, Cohen said she would attempt the quad in Salt Lake City if she made the team.
Though the ladies' team has not yet been chosen, Thursday's competition proved there are many women who would represent Americans well, Cohen's coach John Nicks said.
"This confirms the preeminent place of American ladies figure skating in the world," Nicks said. "We have the most depth. And whoever makes it, it will be an exciting Olympic team."
? In ice dancing, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev continued to dominate the field with a win in the original dance, earning the first perfect 6.0 mark from the judges. Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto held their ground in second place, followed by Beata Handra and Charles Sinek.
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