When he was an adolescent, Todd Eldredge took the most significant step of his life: He left home with a one-way ticket.
It was the start of an unpredictable journey, like skating on thin ice, you might say. There were titles and triumphs. Doubts and debts. But for 14 years Eldredge skated on.
"It's all kind of a blur," he said after he won the men's World Figure Skating Championship as an underdog, earlier this year in Edmonton, Alberta. "And I was like: Huh? It seems weird ... world champion."
He's gotten used to it. He's made winning a habit and has been acclaimed as the successor to the throne of Brian Boitano, the last great American skater.
Last month Eldredge won both season-opening international figure skating events. First, he claimed the Skate America title in Springfield, Mass., with a flawless routine set to the music of the film "Independence Day." Last month Eldredge won the Lalique Trophy in Paris.
"When I saw him in the 1993 Nationals he looked stiff," said James Nicholls, a self-confessed skating buff. "But now he's more relaxed and a lot more graceful."
Eldredge finished third in the World Championships in 1991 and second in 1995. He won the US Championships in 1990, 1991, and 1995 and finished second in the event in 1996. He has won US titles at all three levels (novice, junior, and senior).
But this year has brought stability to a career that once flickered like a firefly. A national title won, lost, regained again, and lost again. The change came in 1993. Years of injuries battered his confidence. He briefly traded his blades for golf irons and the ice rink for the greens. "He was into soul-searching," his mother says.
Eldredge then had a heel lift inserted in his shoes and skates, because one leg is slightly shorter than the other.
"Todd always had the ability to persist," says Eldredge's mother, Ruth. "Even when some people did not believe in him, he believed in himself."
Ruth Eldredge knows a lot about her son. He made her a modern day wayfarer and changed the way their family would live.
It all started when Eldredge was 6. As the son of a commercial fisherman in Chatham, Mass., Eldredge would go out to sea in search of cod and haddock. "But he preferred water in its frozen state," Ms. Eldredge says.
Evidently enough, skating began to consume a lot of the young Eldredge's time and passion. "We thought he would play hockey," she says. "But he loved to jump." Today Eldredge reputedly has the best triple axel jump in the business.
When a 10-year-old Eldredge made skating his top priority in life, his parents shopped for a coach. They found Richard Callaghan, a well-known coach in figure skating's insular world.
Eldredge followed Callaghan, and his mother followed him. First to Philadelphia, then to Colorado Springs, Colo., next to San Diego, and finally to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he now lives, trains, and drives a red 1996 Ferrari F355 convertible, worth an estimated $135,000.
"It was a tough choice to leave my family to be with Todd," Mrs. Eldredge says. "But I wouldn't have been able to do it without the support of my husband and other wonderful son, Scott, who showed no signs of jealously, which we see among many siblings.
"I was there to be Mom, make hot meals and do the laundry. The mom thing." Now Mrs. Eldredge is "back to a wonderful life with my husband of 26 years."
But it takes more than a supportive family. It takes a fortune to make a fortune. Skating for six hours a day, six days a week, 10 months a year, costs an estimated $50,000 a year to pay for the ice time, the equipment, the coaching, and the travel.
"We weren't poor," Mrs. Eldredge says. "But we weren't rich either."
And what did the townsfolk do when they learned of the Eldredges' financial difficulties? They partied! They held clam bakes and dinner dances, and the proceeds were funneled into the Todd Eldredge Chatham Skating Fund. It subsidized two-thirds of Eldredge's expenses.
Now Eldredge has fame, fortune, and he says, room for improvement. He spent the summer perfecting the quad jump, something only a few skaters - Canada's Elvis Stojko and Russia's Alexei Urmanov - have mastered. And if he continues the way he is going now, he should achieve the goal that caused him to start the journey: an Olympic gold medal.