WHILE the year after an Olympics is typically a quiet period at the United States National Figure Skating Championships, what happened in Providence, R.I., last week was interesting if not exactly high-level drama.
Appropriately, given the onset of Valentine's Day, there was a bit of romance. Todd Sand and Jenni Meno, engaged two-time Olympians, won the pairs title with as strong a performance as their coach has seen since Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner dominated the event from 1976 to 1980. John Nicks should know: He coached Tai and Randy. Given the relationship between his latest prize pupils, Nicks says, he often feels like an intruder during practice sessions.
Todd Eldredge, a fisherman's son, regained the men's title that he held in 1990 and '91. His coach, Richard Callaghan, apparently has the Midas touch, since he also teaches the new women's champion, Nicole Bobek, who upset the favored 14-year-old Michelle Kwan. Some figured Bobek, a free spirit, was better suited to show skating than to hard-core competition. Asked why she didn't simply turn pro, she replied, ''I think you ought to win something first.''
Callaghan, incidentally, is the first coach since Gus Lussi in 1950 to guide both singles winners.
Women's focus on basketball is questioned
WIL BROWNING, a sports columnist with the Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record, offers a contrarian's view of women's college basketball: Other sports are better showcases for female student-athletes, he says. In his view, it would have been wiser to emphasize volleyball or gymnastics when the push for women's sports first started. That way, women wouldn't be burdened by inevitable comparisons with men's basketball.
Browning was struck, for example, by the hoopla early this season that followed the first dunk shot in a women's college game in 10 years (by the University of North Carolina's Charlotte Smith). The shot, he wrote, was perceived as ''confirmation that we could now embrace the women's game as an equal to the men's.''
One school that has managed to excel at both women's basketball and volleyball is Stanford University. The Cardinal basketball team won the 1990 and 1992 national championships and is currently ranked No. 6. In December, the volleyball team secured its second national title, defeating UCLA before 8,312 spectators in Austin, Texas.
Touching other bases
*Pop quiz: Which new medal sport in the Pan American Games (March 11-26 in Argentina) held its United States team selection trials in Okahumpka, Fla.? (Answer below.)
*The beauty in new major-city arenas is not simply form, but function. Take Chicago's United Center, home to the basketball Bulls and hockey Black Hawks. It has 50 restrooms compared with only 16 in Chicago Stadium, which began coming down Feb. 3, and 46 concession stands compared with 27 in the old facility.
*It's a cinch many basketball fans, including some in New England, don't realize that the Boston Celtics still play several home games in Hartford, Conn. Whether the arrangement will continue next season, when the team moves into Boston's new Shawmut Center, is under discussion.
*Quiz answer: Water skiing. The biggest hurdle to Olympic status may be the need for motorized boats. Writing in Water Skier magazine, Don Cullimore indicates that technological advances, including automatic throttle control, could largely remove boat performance variables that concern some people. Water skiing missed making the program for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but the sport's backers most likely will keep trying.