FOR most people, interest in figure skating tracks that of the space shuttle - not much until liftoff. Then it's all eyes riveted to the television set.
Launch time for skaters is the Winter Olympic Games next month in Albertville, France. It promises to be a great flight if last week's United States National Figure Skating Championships in Orlando, Fla., is any indication.
There is an added dimension to this year's national winners. Not only is this an Olympic year, but it will be a Winter Olympics year again in just two years. Rather than in 1996, the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, will be held in 1994. The International Olympic Committee made the one-time change in the schedule to allow more planning time between Summer and Winter Olympics, which will now alternate every two years. Nearly all of the 16 US skaters on the '92 team are serious contenders for '94 as we ll.
America's best bet for medals - perhaps even a repeat of the clean sweep of gold, silver, and bronze American women had at the 1991 World Championships - is in women's individual figure skating.
The reason for optimism is not just that 1992 national champion Kristi Yamaguchi has it in her to skate a flawless program; or that second-place Nancy Kerrigan commands the ice the way Katharine Hepburn commanded a movie set; or that third-place Tonya Harding consistently hits the triple axel. Rather, it's that each presents an exceptionally strong and original program at the very time a sea change has taken place in the way skaters are judged in women's singles competition.
Compulsory figures are no more. Each skater is free to offer both an artistic and athletic program, with the emphasis clearly on the athletic. Only Midori Ito of Japan, one of but two women to successfully land the difficult triple axel in competition (America's Tonya Harding is the other), could stop a US sweep.
The triple axel maneuver - the skater spins three and a half times while in the air - is still unusual enough in women's competition that a woman skater might take first without doing one, as Yamaguchi has done in both world and national competitions. But should a woman skater pull off the triple consistently, she would place competitors in the unenviable position of watching to see if she missed it - the only way another skater could win. (The triple axel is a must in men's competition.)
In Orlando, Yamaguchi skated to her considerable strengths - effortless grace and lyricism in a context of extremely difficult maneuvers, a feather purposefully adrift on a sheet of ice.
In marked contrast, Harding, who can power her way across the ice like a downhill skier (she also shoots pool and recently competed in drag racing in her native Oregon), leaps into the air as if the ice were covered with moguls. Kerrigan's blend of strength, beauty, and speed easily recalls that of '88 Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt of then-East Germany.
Todd Eldredge did not compete in Orlando because of an injury. He still earned his place at Albertville by placing in the world championships this past fall. He must still demonstrate to the US Figure Skating Association by Jan. 24 that he is healthy enough to skate. Mark Mitchell, third-place finisher in Orlando, would go to Albertville if Eldredge cannot compete.
Eldredge's colleagues in men's singles are first-place winner Christopher (nicknamed "The Showman" for his antics on the ice and off) Bowman, and second-place Paul Wylie. Wylie, one of the early favorites, tumbled in the first of two rounds before making his trademark comeback in the second. Should the relatively mature (for a skater, at least) 27-year-old put two clean rounds together in France, Wylie just might bring home a medal. Bowman and Wylie are returning veterans from the '88 Olympics (neither w on a medal).
One of the special stories at this year's nationals involved a waitress and a truck driver, the sentimental favorites. The gutsy smile and scratchy Chicago accent of Calla Urbanski, a 31-year-old waitress, contrasted with the Gary Cooper understatement of her 26-year-old truck-driving partner, Rocky Marval (born Rocco Marvaldi) of New Egypt, Pa. They skated the program of their lives to pull from third to first and take the gold medal in pairs.
April Sargent-Thomas, with her partner Russ Witheby, not only took first place in dance skating and a spot on the Olympic team, but top honors for spunk and courage. The Ogdenbsberg, N.Y., skater, despite undergoing surgery on Dec. 17 and skating the week in a weakened condition, mustered the inner resolve for a personal best.
In one of the few surprises, the skate-dance team of Rachel Mayer and Peter Breen placed second, earning a spot on the US Olympic team. US chances for a medal in dance skating are rated low, given that Paul and Isabelle Ducesnay of France are the reigning world champions.
CBS-TV plans to commit approximately 33 percent of its air time at Albertville to figure skating. But it is not the "slo-mo" camera that is the challenge for skaters. Just the constant elements - steel, ice, and gravity. They strew the path to fame and glory.