Most people may feel it's too early to think about the 1984 Winter Olympics, but not figure skaters, who must establish a record of excellence long before the Games begin. That means collecting several national championships, and perhaps a world title as well.
It's with particular interest, therefore, that insiders watch to see who emerges with national and international honors a year after the Olympics. From the looks of things, the future belongs to two Americans -- Scott Hamilton and Elaine Zayak.
When the ice chips finally settled at the 1981 World Figure Skating Championships last weekend, Hamilton had become the second American to win the men's title since 1970. Zayak finished second to Switzerland's Denise Biellmann in the women's competition, but, at 15, is just beginning to mature as a skater.
Honored as the American flagbearer at Lake Placid, where he finished fifth, Hamilton could team with Zayak to give the US a pair of Olympic gold medalists in 1984, when he will be 25.
Barring a turn of events or the sudden emergence of new rivals, they will glide into Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, as the favorites. The reason is simple. With no interest in hanging on until the next Olympics, many top skaters have moved on to other endeavors or are contemplating doing so.
Robin Cousins, Jan Hoffman, and Charles Tickner have bowed out of amateur competition, wiping the men's Olympic slate clean of defending medalists. The women's situation is similar. Linda Frantianne and Dagmar Lurz have already retired, leaving only East German gold medalist Annet Poetzsch still in the hunt. Poetzsch, however, missed the recent world championship with a knee injury.
At Hartford, Hamilton's stiffest challenge came from David Santee, who may call it quits upon winning his first international medal after years of trying. Several weeks earlier he had pressed the current American titlist at the US championships. Santee entered the final phase of the world competition in first place, but couldn't hold off Hamilton in the lengthy free-skating program, which counts 50 percent in the overall judging (compulsory figures and a short program account for the remaining 50 percent).
Though a lithe, fragile-looking figure, the 5 ft. 3 in., 110-pound Hamilton skates with tremendous energy an strength. He exhibited both in recovering quickly from a spill near the end of his routine. Without losing a beat, he was up and flying again, smiling broadly. The judges were impressed, as was the capacity crowed, which stood and applauded the riveting perfomance.
The marks that followed lifted Hamilton from third to first. Santee fell to second, while Igor Bobrin, a 27-year-old Soviet skater, took third.
For Zayak, the World's represented a finishing school, where she could add extra poise and polish. Biellmann, the seasoned 19-year- old, held the upper hand in elegance, and Elaine knew it.
"She had a lot more presentation and style than I did, and that comes with experience," said the bouncy teen from Paramus, N.J. "That's what I have to work on in the future -- getting more style."
A year ago, fresh out of the junior ranks, she narrowly missed making the Olympic team, while serving notice that she was one of the world's most exciting and athletic skaters. Her coach, Peter Burrows, thinks Elaine may wind up changing the sport with her darling jumping ability.
She's already mastered triple-revolution jumps, a trick which puts her at the leading edge of women's figure skating, much as Nadia Comaneci has stood at the forefront of women's gymnastics.
At this year's US championships, Zayak executed seven successful triple jumps during a dazzling long program. The effort allowed her to overtake veterans Priscilla Hill and Lisa-marie allen.
Her victory set up an interesting confrontation with Biellmann, the fourth-place finisher at Lake Placid, in the Hartford Civic Center. For if anyone can fight Zayak's fire with fire of her own it's the innovative European champion, who combines artistry an style with striking maneuvers. the best known of these is the "Biellman spin," a graceful bit of contortion that absolutely ignites an audience. Her now-famous spin is performed with one foot on the ice and the other held above and behind her head.
In the free program, Austria's Claudia Kristofics-Binder, the leader going in , just couldn't match the fireworks of Zayak's seven triples or Biellmann's two superpins, and fell to third. Elaine, meanwhile, moved up from fifth and Denise from second. Biellmann certainly deserved to win, having produced a more fluid overall performance. There was a bit of poetic justice here, too, in light of a petty controversy at the Lake Placid Olympics over stopping the US team's hair- dresser from doing Denise's hair.
To the delight of most everyone, women's skating crowned its first Swiss champion on American ice. It looks as though Biellmann will go pro, however, leaving Zayak as the skater to beat, along with Poetzsch, if she returns. Elaine doesn't exactly relish the idea. She knows other young athletes, like East Germany's Katarina Witt, will rise up to challenge her. Witt outskated everyone in the short program at Hartford with a zesty routine that makes her a name to watch.
As usual, the USSR lined up for a lion's share of medals when couples took to the ice. The husband-wife team of Irina Vorobieva and Igor Lisovsky won the pairs gold, and Soviet skaters took second and third in ice dancing, where Britain's Jayne Torvill an Christopher Dean triumphed.
For the US, high hopes in these events never reached fruition. Kitty and Peter Curruthers, the brother-sister tandem that managed to place fifth at the Olympics, needed an outstanding long program just to equal that finish at the World's (a disastrous short routine put them in a hole). In ice dancing, Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert slipped from third to fourth on the final night of competition.