LOODING TOWARD ALBERTVILLE : They Made Their Wishes Upon a Star : Figure skating: The Eldredges have sacrificed everything--including unity--to help their son, Todd, become a national champion.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Something to consider when planning the youngsters' weekend activities:

What began as a family outing for John and Ruth Eldredge and their boys, Todd and Scott, to the local ice skating rink has become a second mortgage, fund raising in the community and life apart for more than five years.

Mom and Dad now are the proud and poor parents of 19-year-old Todd Eldredge, the two-time U.S. national figure skating champion who will compete in the world championships in Munich this week.

Too late to mention the benefits of just staying home to the Eldredges.

Leaping Lutz, make those hotel reservations for the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France.

"The end is in sight," John said. "If you told me 10 years ago what we would go through, I wouldn't have believed you. But we've made this commitment on Todd and we cannot cut back on what we're doing because it takes a total commitment.

"In fact, it takes more than a total commitment for somebody like that to get where he's going, because there's only room for one where he wants to go."

The Eldredges' determination to provide their boy with the opportunity to succeed, however, nips at everything dear to a family. They knew nothing about the demands of figure skating. They now know too much to quit.

John and son Scott have remained in South Chatham, Mass., working as commercial fishermen, and Ruth and Todd have followed the skater's coach, Richard Callaghan, across the country.

When Callaghan took up residence in Colorado Springs more than five years ago, so did Ruth and Todd. When he accepted an assignment as the director of skating for the San Diego Ice Arena three years ago, they packed again to train here.

"There was one spot in the skating schedule," Callaghan said, "where it had gotten so busy that Todd was home a total of 12 hours in two years."

In a good year, Ruth makes it back to South Chatham to see her husband maybe three times. This year has been tough, and John has been unable to visit San Diego.

"How do you explain that to people?" John said. "You don't. You tell them what we're doing, and they look at you like you're crazy. And sometimes when I'm sitting here alone, I wonder about that.

"I know it's very different. Would I do it again? That's a question I've been asked several times, and my wife and I have discussed that several times. I don't know. I suppose . . . I don't know."

Scott, 16 months older than Todd, has plans to attend college. But money is tight, and there can be no skimping in Todd's rise to prominence.

"There are some people who feel it's unfair to Scott, but that's the situation," John said. "It's not a problem with Scott. We have to do what we're doing for Todd, and we'll try to do what is best for Scott."

It has been an emotional and financial tug of war for the Eldredges. Skating success has rewarded their perseverance, but family outings simply aren't the same.

"We started off as a family of four," John said. "It dwindled to three when Todd joined Callaghan in Philadelphia at age 10, and now we're down to two. We're two here, and they're two there.

"People ask me how's his life, and I tell them they know as much as I do. When I get to see him, it's almost like seeing a different person. You know how fast they grow."

In the beginning, Mom and Dad were just trying to do what was right for their child. It's not their fault their boy couldn't hit a baseball.

"I did play Little League, and I was horrible, struck out every time," said Eldredge, who is 5-foot-8. "In football I always got wasted, and I was too short for basketball.

"From watching figure skating on television, I remember seeing champions like Scott Hamilton and Robin Cousins and seeing the glory they got. I think that would be just phenomenal to achieve what they have achieved."

Mom and Dad, meanwhile, were just out for some fun with the family.

"A Sunday night on the ice, and that was going to be that," John said with a laugh.

A good thing there were no thoroughbred race tracks open on Sunday night.

"We started the boys in hockey skates on that outing, but after going to the rink, Todd wanted to jump and spin," Ruth said. "We spent $35 for hockey skates and, of course, you can't jump and spin in hockey skates. So it was, what are we going to do, buy this kid who isn't even 6 yet another pair of skates?

"To this day, I blame my husband, because he's the one who said yes."

This year, it cost $1,000 for the costume Todd son will wear in his short program in Munich. The skating lessons--at $65 a hour--continue. There's ice time, as well as private and group lessons with the American Ballet School.

There is also the expense of maintaining two households on opposite coasts.

"We have no security in our future," Ruth said, "but we have our kids and that's more valuable than money in the bank. There isn't any money in the bank and I don't give a damn.

"John and I both feel he's only a kid once and he will have this opportunity only once. It's only a few years of our life. If we're not here to give them what we can give them, then what are we here for?"

By the middle of 1985, John and Ruth had given everything they could to Todd's development. So often had they been to the bank to apply for loans that they were mistaken as employees.

They were two weeks away from ending Todd's competitive skating career when their plight came to the attention of neighbors in South Chatham, a summertime resort that shrinks to 6,400 residents in the winter.

"They had literally exhausted their own funds," said Norman Howes, a friend of the family. "So some people got together and had a clambake to raise some money. We also had videos of his skating and had little house parties.

"We'd have people look at how good he was, and no one knows at that age what's going to happen, but we asked them to sign five-year pledge cards. That first year we raised $10,000. We've been doing it every year since, and I think our biggest year is something like $32,000 or $33,000. It's a piece of Americana."

Last year's Christmas dance for the Todd Eldredge Skating Fund earned another $6,000 to $8,000.

"There was a time a while back when things weren't going so good with fund raising, and I remember telling Ruth to just keep putting things on her charge card and we'll do what we can to make the payments," Howes said. "But now people are seeing how wonderful this young man is."

Eldredge has returned to South Chatham to perform for his benefactors. And his support has been impressed.

"Everybody has had to sacrifice," Howes said. "He's given away his childhood and they have obviously sacrificed a normal family life for the dream of one person. But I don't think there's anyone more appreciative of that than the person himself."

The U.S. Figure Skating Association's Memorial Fund also helps defray expenses, but it's South Chatham that greases his future on ice.

"Thank God for those people," John said. "We could never have kept it up. It would have buried me."

In doing his part, Todd Eldredge has continued to advance at each level. He won the national novice, world novice, national junior, world junior and, after placing fifth in the U.S. senior nationals on his first try, he came back to win the title twice.

His initial national senior championship in 1990 came on the strength of his performance in the compulsory competition--and with the news that flashy Christopher Bowman had been forced to withdraw because of a back injury.

"The win was considered a fluke," Todd said. "I had something to prove this year."

The International Skating Union, however, eliminated the compulsory competition this year. For a technically sound skater like Eldredge, it was like taking the fastball away from Roger Clemens.

But Eldredge, although not known for his showmanship, went triple axel to triple axel with Bowman and emerged the champion once again. His long program was ranked first by six of the nine judges, and it has propelled him into the spotlight at this week's world championships.

"It gives me a better shot at the worlds," Eldredge said shortly before his departure to Munich. "They know I successfully repeated as champion. They'll open their eyes and say, 'Maybe this guy is pretty good after all.' "

His fifth-place showing in the worlds last year already was an eye-opener.

"The first time you're in a world event you have to pay your dues, but he was beating people who had six and seven years of paying their dues," Callaghan said. "I think Brian Boitano was ninth in his first worlds and Scott Hamilton 11th."

In preparing his pupil for stardom, even Callaghan has been taken aback. A former Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice performer, Callaghan expected a long and bumpy journey to the top for Eldredge.

"The fact he mentally pulled off the national competition this year makes me think he's even stronger than I thought he was," Callaghan said. "When Todd won last year, that put him way ahead of schedule. He had previously ranked fifth, and all we were trying to do was break into the top three. And he wins the thing."

Eldredge's fascination with figure skating became evident to Callaghan upon their first meeting.

"He was one of a 100 in a skating camp in Rochester, N.Y., but you couldn't help but noticing him," he said. "He had such concentration and such a love for skating.

"He talked his parents into coming down on weekends to Philadelphia where I was coaching, and then he moved into a skaters' house we had there at age 10.

"I don't know how they've done it. I can't comprehend emotionally and financially what he and his parents have gone through. I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I can't picture sending her away at age 10. And I wouldn't."

If it's been tough, it has not taken its toll on Eldredge. Take away his skates, and he's like any other carefree teen-ager.

Of course, you can't take away the skates. He attended high school in Philadelphia and then in Colorado Springs and tried to enroll at Mt. Carmel in Rancho Penasquitos for his senior year.

"The senior counselor told him he had to decide between classes and skating," Ruth said. "Imagine that, we're 3,000 miles from home because of skating, and they're telling us to decide between classes and skating."

So he completed his senior year of high school in independent study, and he will resume his second semester of college as his schedule permits this summer.

"This is a young kid from a normal family in an unusual sport with unusual drive and unusual ability," Callaghan said. "Good family support, more than anything else, has made him successful."

But there is no pressure from Mom and Dad--never has been.

"It isn't difficult to please my parents," he said. "They are really behind what I'm doing. I know the sacrifices they make. Mom and Dad don't get to see each other as often as they like."

Callaghan got a good chuckle from hearing that. For nine years, he has been there on the ice with Eldredge. With him, he carries the trust of both John and Ruth. He's cheerleader, taskmaster and, as Ruth emphasized, "a member of the family."

"He's interested in Todd the person," she said, "before he gives a thought to Todd the skater."

At this year's national competition, Callaghan acknowledged that perhaps things were moving too rapidly for his protege.

"You have to understand, Christopher Bowman is an excellent skater and he always competes well," Callaghan said. "I knew it would be difficult for Todd to win this year."

Callaghan had company.

"I went into it firmly believing he was going to be No. 2 and Christopher Bowman would be first," Ruth said.

But Eldredge continued to confound. He won again, as he did at age 18, when he became the youngest national champion since Scotty Allen in 1966.

"The marketing agents have been calling," Callaghan said. "People now see him as a product. It's getting more complicated with each success."

Eldredge already is considered by some to be technically advanced to Boitano and Hamilton when they were at his age. In recent international competition, he narrowly lost to the world's defending champion, Canada's Kurt Browning.

"He's developing a reputation as the kind of guy people don't expect to be on the top, but always ends on the top," Callaghan said. "He's hungry. He really wants it."

When Todd was 6, he was pressuring his mother to join him in free skating before afternoon kindergarten classes. When he was 9, he was showing up for practice with a notebook. When he was 10, he convinced his parents to let him move alone to Philadelphia. By the time he was 11, they needed a trophy case.

Two years ago, he began working with instructor Gail Wingfield at the American Ballet School in San Diego to stylize his rough-edge athletic performances.

"You could see he was out of his element when he started," Wingfield said, "but you could also see he was very determined to learn what he needed to learn. He couldn't perform in a ballet, but on ice you can see the difference."

Eldredge's ballet training included lessons in selling himself to the audience. A classical performer, he has lacked the showmanship of Bowman.

"That's been a criticism, but I'm better," he said. "How I carry myself makes a difference. Before I could just sort of hang around. Now I've got to look like I'm No. 1."

He also has to talk like a champion, and so he has received instruction from a New York public relations firm on what to say and how to say it.

"He was interviewed by 50 people in Minneapolis," Callaghan said. "One of the comments in the paper the next day was that, if he was auditioning for an anchor job, he got it. Hey, there's more to this than just jumping and landing."

All the work that has gone into fashioning this potential Olympic champion, however, almost went for naught. Three years ago, his body began to betray him. Physicians in Seattle said he suffered a pair of stress fractures in his back and said his career as a competitive skater might be over.

But further tests and medical opinions suggested something else.

"Basically, they said one leg was longer than the other," he said. "I underwent therapy, put a lift in my skate and everything has been fine."

And now he has a leg up on all the other male skaters in the United States. A top three finish in the world championships is not so far-fetched. If his Olympic bid fails in 1992, he gets another try in Norway in 1994.

"That seems like such a dream," Ruth said. "It really does seem out of the realm of possibilities that he might be in the Olympics.

"But I've always felt the world isn't going to come to an end if you're not a winner. You don't have to be No. 1 to be a winner. For him, it's important to be first and he needs that to drive himself, but as far as I'm concerned, he doesn't need to be No. 1."

To be No. 1 in the world, he will have to skate past the likes of Browning and Soviet Viktor Petrenko, who won the bronze in the 1988 Olympics.

"There's almost a different level of skating between those two guys and some of the guys below them," Eldredge said. "They've been there, they have the experience and they look like they've had the experience.

"In the next couple of years, I'll be gaining that experience and pushing them."

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