Sand, Kuchiki Make a Point Despite Score : Figure skating: Area team gains confidence and experience but fails to impress judges in a crowd-pleasing return to the ice.


Todd Sand has been feeling a little better lately. As a result, Natasha Kuchiki, his figure skating partner, is feeling a lot better.

Never mind that the top pairs team in the United States trailed three Soviet couples when results of the original program were tabulated Thursday at the Goodwill Games.

The scores will come later, after the international judging community gets used to the relatively new top team from the United States. That probably won't happen soon enough to help Sand and Kuchiki in the Goodwill Games--the competition concludes today with the free-skating program.

"We're still trying to establish ourselves as one of the top teams in the world," Sand said after the pair's marks had been taken off the board and a crowd of 17,429 at the Tacoma Dome stopped jeering.

Had the judges been aware of the trials faced by Sand and Kuchiki in the past months, perhaps they would have been more generous.

Sand, of Thousand Oaks, and Kuchiki, from Canoga Park, have been in full training for only two weeks. They were scheduled to compete at the U. S. Olympic Festival in Minneapolis last month, but were forced to withdraw at the last minute because Sand was experiencing lower-back problems.

Doctors suggested plenty of rest. Not exactly a prescription for figure skating success with a major international competition a month away.

Early this week, Sand told Kuchiki he was starting to feel like his old self, a comment she said "relieved" her.

Thursday, his performance spoke for itself. The couple's performance had a minor flaw or two, but nothing noticeable to the crowd, which roared its approval.

"I felt a little nervous going in, but once I started skating, I forgot about it," Kuchiki said. "The crowd was great."

And, on this day, that was enough of a reward.

"The crowd knew it was a fine performance," said John Nicks, who coaches the pair. "We were a little disappointed in the marks, but this is still a new pair. Once they perform like this two or three more times in front of an international judging body, then we'll see those numbers go up. We're very happy about what happened here today."

The Goodwill Games mark only the second international competition for Sand, 26, and Kuchiki, 13, who joined forces a little more than a year ago.

After only eight months together, they placed second in the U.S. championships at Salt Lake City in February.

In March, they placed 11th at the world championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The following month, they became No. 1--in the United States, at least.

Rudi Galindo and Kristi Yamaguchi, national pairs champions, separated to pursue singles careers. Inheriting the top spot added some pressure, Kuchiki said, but Nicks, who used to coach world champions Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia, is confident the couple will prove that is where they belong.

"They're still learning, but I think it was obvious today that they're becoming much more comfortable together," Nicks said. "They're starting to look like what I would call a seasoned pair of competitors."

In the singles, Christopher Bowman of Van Nuys was sixth among eight competitors in the men's scoring. It is a humbling position for the 1989 national champion, but one he said he deserved.

"When you miss a combination, that's what happens," Bowman said.

Bowman's exercise was to include a triple-lutz followed by a double-toe loop. Instead, he performed a single-lutz and double-toe loop.

"The program is new and still in the development stages," Bowman said. "I've had trouble with it."

Viktor Petrenko of the Soviet Union, who was second in the world championships, leads going into today's free-skating portion of the competition.

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