This article originally written by Antoinette for The Hearthstone Press

'96 Nationals: Finale

ABC broadcast only 3 and half hours of the United States National Figure Skating Championships. This is like broadcasting the Super Bowl and only showing the last quarter. While most folks at home were wondering who was this Dan Hollander, who won the bronze in the men's championships, those who were at last year's Nationals could have foretold that this young man was on the verge of making a big splash. So let me introduce you to some of the skaters to watch for in the future, so that next year you can amaze, your friends with amazing prognostications like mine., of which four out of twelve were correct.

The junior pairs competition featured two young pairs clearly destined for greatness. The winners, Natalie Vlandis and Jered Guzman, are a wonderfully exciting pair with great speed, power, a throw triple salchow and a triple twist. These two kids competed despite being seriously injured in practice; Vlandis had to have twelve stitches in her hand after an on ice collision. Vlandis and Guzman will compete as seniors next year.

The most artistic pair in the junior level Tiffany and Johnnie Stiegler finished fourth, but should have been third. They don't have any triple jumps as of yet, but they are wonderfully expressive and musical. 12 year old Tiffany has enough artistic expression for the entire field. Also a wonderful pair to watch for in the future is Katie Barnhart and Charles Bernhard, they finished thirteenth last year and their balletic quality allowed them to pull up to fifth the year.

Kelly Peterman, the young girl who was injured very badly in the practice sessions, competed despite bruised ribs and a back injury. Peterman and her partner Matthew Stuart finished a respectable twelfth. In such an injury prone group the bravest had to be Laura Handy and Jim Peterson. In the first element of their program, a double twist, Handy hit her nose against Peterson's head and had to leave the ice bleeding and sobbing. But after being treated by the event doctor, Handy and Peterson came back out, and re-skated their long program well enough to move up from tenth place to eighth.

The novice ladie's champion is 11 year old J.J. Matthews, an adorable whirling dervish with tremendous charm. Also of note in the novice division is Rinne Brayman who made a remarkable come back. She finished in eleventh place in the short program, which seemingly knocked her out of contention. But a tremendous routine in the long program gave her second place in the long and fourth place all around. The Novice Men's division was won by Joe Knazek, this exceptional young man completed five triple jumps, the most any of his competition could complete was two.

Shelby Lyons won the junior ladies competition, which required a great deal of finagling by the judges after she blew the short program. Lyons is clearly a favorite of the United States Figure Skating Association but there were plenty of junior ladies with just as much talent and possibility, if not political connections. Diana Miro is a better jumper, Serena Phillips and Morgan Rowe are better artists then Lyons, but she is the USFSA's darling so they finished third, fourth and fifth respectively

The shoe fitting Cinderella's foot. The beast transformed into a prince. Sleeping Beauty awakening with a kiss. None of these fairy tales can touch the finale of the U.S Men's National Championship. Rudy Galindo skated the performance of a lifetime in his hometown of San Jose. The audience was on their feet before his final spin was complete; his music was still playing but you couldn't hear it over the roar of the crowd. Galindo, 26, is a star crossed man whose life has been filled with tragedy and whose skating never cracked the top of men's singles, but for four and a half minutes, in what many thought was his last competition, he was perfection.

In 1989 and 1990 Rudy Galindo was the U.S. pairs champion with his partner Kristy Yamaguchi. In 1991 Galindo's life began a tragic descent from which most assumed he would never recover. His coach Jim Hulik died of AIDS, and shortly afterward Yamaguchi ended their partnership to concentrate on her singles career. While Yamaguchi would go on to an Olympic gold medal and become a millionaire, Galindo's life would begin to resemble a country western song. Galindo's next coach also died of AIDS. In 1993 his father passed away, and in 1994 he lost his only brother while he was away in Austria for a skating competition. Galindo taught at the local rink to pay for his skating and was coached by his sister Laura. He had so little funding that he had to ride his bicycle to the rink in order to train.

On the ice Galindo had tremendous style and elegance, but he kept missing the all essential jumps in the important competitions. He won the Pacific Sectionals for the past four years, but he could never keep it together at the National level. His highest finish was fifth, but the last two years he finished seventh and then eighth. Last summer he had all but given up the sport, but he decided that he would come back for this one last National's, he could not resist the opportunity to skate one last time before his hometown crowd.

In the practice sessions last week he was brilliant. He skated wonderfully artistic routines with great skill and presentation, and he landed triple jump combinations with ease. The question was whether or not he would be able to hold it together for the competition. The night of the long program he was extraordinary. He landed three triple combinations, two of them triple/triple combinations. His spins were fast and innovative, his presentation was exciting, he sucked the audience in. The crowd held its breath when he went up for a jump, and when he landed it they exploded with glee. He received first place ordinals from seven of the nine judges, the remaining judges evidently were blind.

When he left the ice he threw his arms around his sister looked heavenward and shouted his love to his brother and father.

The men's competition featured many surprises, but the performance of two time national champion Scott Davis came as no surprise, sadly. Davis' nerves have failed him in every major competition since he defeated Brian Boitano in 1994. During the practice sessions Davis would land triple jumps light as a feather, but the moment his music started playing for his run through he started hitting the ice like a ton of bricks. He so frustrated his coach Kathy Casey that she read him the riot act during public practice while his competition and fans watched. Davis landed only two triple jumps in his long program, finished fourth and off the world team for the first time in three years.

Like Davis two time U.S. bronze medalist Aren Nielsen let his nerves get the better of him, and despite the best artistry amongst the men finished in eighth Michael Weiss two footed many of his triple jumps, but ridiculously high presentation skills kept him in fifth place. Last years junior men's silver medalist, Trifun Zivanovic landed triple jumps with ease and skill. This year he finished seventh and he is definitely someone to watch for in the future.

Defending champion Todd Eldredge spent most of the National's looking sheepish while his coach, Richard Callahan said "I told you so." Callahan had told both Eldredge and Nicole Bobek not to go on the Nutcracker On Ice tour the month before National's, but neither listened to his advice. Bobek left Callahan for a new coach, Eldredge came to San Jose vowing he would never do a tour so close to National's again. Eldredge's new long program had holes in it big enough to drive a Zamboni through. He clearly had not had enough time to work on his new program and it showed. Though he landed all but one of his jumps the program was lifeless and dull, he finished second to Galindo, but was not even as warmly received by the crowd as third place finisher Dan Hollander. Hollander is a Scott Hamilton with hair, his short program was delightful with many humorous twists in between perfectly landed jumps. His long program was elegant and stylish and was second only to Galindo's in technical difficulty, he earned the bronze medal and his first trip to the world championships.

In the senior pairs the judges played fast and loose with the results of the short program so that United States Figure Skating Association darling Shelby Lyons and her partner Brian Wells would be positioned to move up to third should Stephanie Stiegler and John Zimmerman make a mistake in the long program. Stiegler and Zimmerman are vastly superior artistically, but problems with their final side by side jumps gave the bronze medal to Lyons and Wells.

Todd Sand fell on a triple toe in the short, his wife and partner Jenny Meno fell on a throw triple salchow in the long, but they were clear and away the best pair on the ice and took home their third national championship. Silver medalists Kyoka Ina and Jason Dungjen skated wonderfully and were technically superior, but Meno and Sand's artistry is simply on another plane They glided across the ice, staring into each others eyes, seemingly locked in a world of their own and mesmerized the audience and judges alike.

The dance competition featured so many upsets, I had to keep glancing at the scoreboard to assure myself that the scores were accurate. Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow skated with much greater speed and deeper edges then runner ups Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur, but seldom in ice dance does the defending champion loose. Perhaps all the years of complaints about ice dance judging have finally sunk in, for not only did Punsalan and Swallow receive a reward for their vast improvement so did the young pair that finished third.

The bronze medalists in dance Eve Chalom and Mathew Gates have a fairy tale story of their own. Chalom has a sixty percent hearing loss and wears hearing aids in both ears. She has started to learn sign language because she "was afraid I would be old and not be able to talk to anyone." They perform the deep, ice kissing edges called hydroplaning made famous by Canadian champions Shae Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. The quality of these edges allowed this pair to finish third in their first year as seniors, that feat is almost impossible in the highly regimented world of ice dance.

The most amazing part of the senior ladies competition, featuring the youngest champion in 32 years, was that the silver medalist is an actual lady. Tonia Kwiatkowski was graceful and mature as you might well expect from a woman of 24, she also landed six triple jumps and secured second place with seeming ease.

Fifteen year old Michelle Kwan won, as expected, not that the predictability of her victory diminished the excitement of it in anyway. Kwan was sensational, artistically mature, musical, with great extension and line. Her spins were fast, her spirals were exceptional, and oh by the way, she landed seven very high, very fast triple jumps, including the only triple/triple combination in the ladie's event. Every judge gave her first place marks, a unanimity amongst skating judges that I thought was impossible. The crowd gave her a standing ovation and about a hundred stuffed animals.

Kwan's victory was almost overshadowed by the saga of Nicole Bobek. Bobek came to the National's suffering from tendonitis in her right ankle, her landing leg. Normally a national champion, who won a medal at last year's world championships, would be able to get a bye to the World's if they had an injury. But these are not normal times for the USFSA, Nicole Bobek is an undisciplined blonde, with a dysfunctional family and an unacceptable boyfriend. The press delights in labeling her the new Tonya Harding, and the USFSA will do anything to prevent that bit of press hyperbole from coming true. Bobek's coach attempted to get a bye for her from the Federation, but they refused siting the fact that Bobek toured in the Nutcracker On Ice after injuring her ankle. If she was well enough to tour, she was well enough to earn a trip to the world championships with everyone else.

Bobek competed in the short program and did very well, her only mistake was a hand down in the triple lutz/double toe combination. She was third in the short program, behind Kwan and Kwaitkowski, positioned to defend her title if she won the long program, or earn a spot on the world team if she finished third. Neither of these scenarios would happen, Bobek re-injured her ankle in warm up and pulled out of the competition just a few minutes before she was to skate her long program. Their was some speculation that Bobek pulled out because she knew she could match the program that Kwan skated just moments before, but the USFSA doctor reported that Bobek's injury was real and serious, she could not skate. The USFSA now had a decision to make, they could still choose to give Bobek a bye to the World's. She had given it her best, finished third in the short and more importantly the third place finisher in the ladie's competition, who would normally get the third spot on the world team, was only 13.

Tara Lipinski was last year's media whiz kid at the tender age of 12. The press crawled all over her at the 1995 national's, and many took great delight when she lost the junior ladie's title to then 15 year old Sydney Vogel. This year Lipinski was suffering from an anti media frenzy backlash. Lipinski skated a much more difficult short program than Vogel, but Vogel finished ahead of Lipinski in the short. Then Vogel fell twice in her long program. Lipinski skated great, a technically difficult and artistically mature program. The judges gave her unreasonably low scores, they clearly resent the media build up and her very young age, but she still won the bronze medal. So with the immature Lipinski in third place, with the doctor saying Bobek's injury was real, it seemed reasonable to expect the USFSA to grant Bobek that bye to the world championships.

But the USFSA has had enough, they live in terror of another Harding. Plus Bobek chose to tour instead of train, and the Federation is angry about the competition they are receiving from the professional tours and competition. So they decided to teach the mercurial Bobek a lesson. Pick a coach young lady, stick with a coach, listen to a coach and train hard, they clearly said. Whether Bobek will listen or not remains to be seen.

The irony was that the without the defending champion this was still the best skated ladie's final in many years. There were fewer falls in the final flight then has been seen since the mad rush for triple jumps began in the late eighties. Lipinski charmed, Kwiatkowski impressed everyone with her longevity, but the night belonged to the Kwans. After the dazzling gold medal winning performance of Michelle, big sister Karen came out to make a name for herself. Karen does not have the most difficult triple jumps, so she does not receive the marks she deserved even for artistry, and her artistry is simply extraordinary. She is a Chinese Peggy Fleming, as graceful as a prima ballerina with tremendous emotion and expression. Her scores received the loudest boos from the audience, but were good enough to finish fifth. When Karen left the ice Michelle threw her arms around her, and the two sat and giggled while their dignified coach Frank Carroll was sandwiched between the two of them. It was one of the sweetest moments of the championships.

A man who was not even counted as a contender becomes champion, and a Chinese immigrant family gives America two of it's top five lady skaters. Didn't I tell you that the US National's were the most exciting event in sports?

Predictions, Part 1: The Unsung, Part 2: Practice Sessions, Part 3: Finale
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