Kwiatkowski Hopes She's Aged for Better

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joining two teenagers, newly crowned champion Michelle Kwan and third-place finisher Tara Lipinski in the interview room after the U.S. figure skating championships two months ago, runner-up Tonia Kwiatkowski entered with the aid of a walker. Nearing her 25th birthday, she was good-naturedly making fun of the media for paying so much attention to her age.

Although most of her competitors have not finished high school, Kwiatkowski graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland two years ago with a double degree in communications and psychology. But she has remained in the sport primarily to erase the painful memory of 1993, when she earned her first berth in the world championships but failed to qualify among the top 20 skaters there who advanced to the finals.

That was a shock for the talent-rich United States, which in the three previous years had never had one of its female skaters finish lower than sixth in the world championships. In 1991, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan finished 1-2-3.

The United States is not expected to do nearly as well in this week's world championships here, but at least Kwiatkowski expects to advance beyond today's qualifying round. Lipinski, 13, is also optimistic, although her task might be more difficult because she is appearing before international senior judges for the first time. She was fourth in last year's junior world championships.

If Kwiatkowski and Lipinski qualify, that would send them into Friday's short program with the 15-year-old Kwan, who automatically advances because she finished among the top 10--fourth--in last year's world championships in Birmingham, England.

After winning four of five international competitions this season, Kwan, of Torrance, is among the gold-medal favorites this year, along with defending champion Chen Lu of China, France's Surya Bonaly and Russia's Irinia Slutskaya. Adding intrigue, Japan's Midori Ito is coming back from four years in retirement after winning the silver medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics.

The United States' two skaters in the men's qualifying Sunday, national champion Rudy Galindo and surprise bronze medalist Dan Hollander, both advanced. Todd Eldredge, second in the U.S. championships, was exempt from qualifying because he was runner-up in the 1995 world championships. Galindo, in a performance technically as strong as the one that lifted him to the national title, won his qualifying group. He enthralled the crowd with eight triple jumps, six in combination, in his program to "Swan Lake." Hollander was second among the 11 skaters in their group.

The men's short program is scheduled for Wednesday. Besides Eldredge, the favorites are defending champion Elvis Stojko of Canada and Russians Alexei Urmanov and Ilya Kulik.

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