Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny considered skating off into the sunset of professional ice shows last year, after they finished sixth among pairs at the Lillehammer Olympics. But Kovarikova and Novotny, who left their native Czech Republic to train in Lake Arrowhead the last three seasons, thought they had more medal-caliber performances left in them.
"We wanted to prove we are at the top level," Kovarikova said. "We went to the world championships hoping for a medal, but had little hopes of gold. We were just saying, 'Any medal.' Of course, gold is best."
Their performance three weeks ago in Birmingham, England was gold-medal quality, as was their effort Tuesday in the Hershey's Kisses International Challenge. Their precise, charming short program was ranked first by all five judges and warmly applauded by the sparse crowd of 3,173 at the Sports Arena, putting them a third of the way to a $25,000 first prize. The free skating, which counts for two-thirds of the final score, will be contested tonight.
Michelle Kwan of Torrance, who missed a medal at worlds by one place, also gave a winning performance in her short program Tuesday. She recorded one 5.9 (out of 6.0) for presentation and leads the five-woman field entering tonight's final.
Nicole Bobek, who prevailed over Kwan at the U.S. national championships and was third at worlds, two-footed the landing on the first part of her combination jump and lost points on her marks for required elements. She stands third.
Form held in ice dancing, where world champions Oksana Grischuk and Evgeny Platov of Russia won the compulsory and original dance segments. The men's competition, however, had an unexpected leader in 17-year-old Ilia Kulik, who was the junior world champion and senior men's European champion before finishing 11th in worlds. Kulik swept all five judges to stay ahead of 1994 Olympic gold medalist Alexei Urmanov of Russia, U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, U.S. runner-up Scott Davis and Eric Millot of France.
Eldredge, who was second in Birmingham, almost touched his hand to the ice to steady the landings of his triple axel--the first part of his required combination jump--and again on a triple lutz. But Davis two-footed the landing of his triple axel, which was more severely penalized by the judges.
"I didn't put my hand down, but I almost put my nose down," Eldredge said. "It was one of those rough performances."
Competing here was difficult emotionally for Radikova and Novotny after their long-awaited triumph at Birmingham.
"We thought about (not coming) but we like California and we decided to come," said Radikova, who was paired with Novotny seven years ago, when she was a tiny 13-year-old and he was 25. They are engaged, although no wedding date has been set.
"The audience was great here even if it was not sold out."
But if it felt nice to the Czech couple, it was an ordeal for Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, who train in Costa Mesa. Meno and Sand, who followed their triumph at nationals by winning the bronze in Birmingham, have both been fighting pneumonia and both were gasping by the end of their 2-minute 40-second program. They were third, behind Evgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov of Russia. Americans Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen are fourth.