Clutch battle for women's title highlighted skating championships

Figure skating often seems far removed from the teeth-gritting, body-straining environment of other sports. The athletes smile, glitter, and glide around the ice in a wonderful coverup of the effort they expend. At the world championships, however, coach Alex McGowan reached for a comparison that the average sports fan could relate to, especially one sitting in Riverfront Coliseum, a stone's throw from Riverfront Stadium.

``Debi's got to go out now and give a Pete Rose-type of performance,'' said McGowan, the coach of American Debi Thomas, whose reign as world champion stood in jeopardy heading into Saturday night's women's free-skating finale.

For anyone familiar with the hustle of the Cincinnati Reds' player-manager, there was no mistaking the point. Thomas would need to skate with Rose-ian abandon to have any chance of overtaking East Germany's Katarina Witt in the critical long program.

Skating right before Witt, Thomas indeed turned in a sparkling, gutsy routine, landing five virtually wobbleless triple jumps on tender ankles.

It was a magnificent clutch performance - but it wasn't enough. For while Thomas came through like Rose, Witt was nothing less than Babe Ruth in his prime. Thomas watched in awe as the evening's cleanup hitter came through with homer after homer, ``sticking'' every single jump and beautifully interpreting a ``West Side Story'' medley.

No judges were required to confirm the obvious: The 1984 Olympic gold medalist had regained the world title she held in '84 and '85.

Turning to her coach, Thomas said of her rival, ``The girl's amazing. She's tough. The pressure was really on, yet she did everything she had to do.''

For the striking Fr"aulein it was quite a finish to a week that began in tears. She dug a hole for herself by placing a disappointing fifth in the compulsory figures.

Because of the complex scoring system, the slow start meant she could place first in both freestyle programs and still not capture the gold. The gate was opened, though, when Thomas stumbled in her short program and the Soviet Union's Kira Ivanova came unglued in the long to fall from the overall lead to fifth place.

Ivanova's collapse paved the way for swanlike American, Caryn Kadavy, whose graceful style has inspired comparisons to Peggy Fleming, to grab the bronze. Kadavy just made the United States team, beating out Tiffany Chin, who once appeared destined for the international limelight.

Chin, a fourth-place finisher at the '84 Olympics, seemed the early favorite for '88, when few expected Witt would compete. The East German skater has surprised a lot of people by sticking around, though, perhaps motivated by the desire to regain her world crown. Now, of course, there won't be any talk of retiring until after the '88 Calgary Games.

For the world's leading men, the coming Olympics will represent a dramatic rubber match. Canada's Brian Orser won the gold here, but flanking him during the awards ceremony were two former world champions, American Brian Boitano (second) and Soviet Alexander Fadeyev (third).

This made victory all the sweeter for the light and nimble Orser, a three-time world silver medalist and the '84 Olympic silver medalist. Orser may now arrive in Calgary as a slight favorite.

By the Olympics, however, Boitano could finally have a quadruple jump down pat. This four-revolution stunt has never been executed successfully in international competition, but much was made of his decision to go for it this past week. He landed a beauty in the warm-ups to the finals, but botched the attempt that counted after Orser, who is working on his own quad, carved out a consistent, if less daring performance.

``I don't think it's important to put the quad in,'' he said. ``Even if someone does it, the judges will judge the entire program, the artistry of the whole program.''

Fusing the artistry of two skaters is a special challenge, but one that the Soviets have mastered, as was predictably demonstrated here when Russian couples finished 1-2 in both the pairs and ice dancing events. Natalya Bestemyanova and Andrei Bukin, who have skated together 10 years, won the dance title, and Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov the pairs.

Preventing a western shutout were Americans Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, who captured the pairs bronze, and Canadians Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, who took third in the dance.

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