When he closes his eyes, Michael Weiss sees himself adding the World Figure Skating Championship to his U.S. title, delighting 70 friends and relatives who will come to the MCI Center this week from his hometown of Fairfax, Va., and points beyond.
Through hypnosis during his six weekly sessions with sports psychologist Topher Morrison, Weiss has learned to relax and anticipate the best instead of fearing the worst. The trick worked Monday, when he won his qualifying group over Takeshi Honda of Japan and U.S. compatriot Ryan Jahnke.
"That's what we've been talking about -- three clean programs and the gold medal," said Weiss, whose morning hypnosis session couldn't prevent him from two-footing the landings of his two quadruple jumps. "It would be fantastic to win here. It would mean a lot to me."
His biggest obstacle appears to be Russia's Evgeny Plushenko, who overcame a sore knee to win the other qualifying group. Plushenko, the 2001 world champion and 2002 Olympic silver medalist, forged ahead of Tim Goebel of the U.S. and Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland by landing a quad toe loop-triple toe loop-triple loop combination and milking the drama of Bizet's "Carmen."
Plushenko got 5.8s and 5.9s (out of 6.0) for technical merit and 5.9s and a 6.0 for presentation, although it's not known if the 6.0 counted because judges' marks are selected randomly by computer. Goebel landed two clean quads but stepped out of his triple axel and touched his hand to the ice on his triple loop, earning technical scores of 5.7 and 5.8 and artistic scores of 5.5 to 5.8. The qualifying round is worth 20% of the final score. Today's short program is worth 30%, and Thursday's free skate will be worth 50%.
"I had fun," said Plushenko, who attributed his knee problem to trying too many quads in practice last week. "I like to skate, and I like to jump."
Goebel was satisfied, considering his last performance was a shaky second-place finish at the U.S. championships two months ago, when he couldn't land a quad. "It was a great comeback," said Goebel who missed the Grand Prix series because of a hip injury. "I felt great. The crowd was very loud and boisterous for all the skaters, not just the Americans. It's nice to see with everything that's going on in the world people are still interested in skating."
Jahnke, third at the U.S. championships, didn't try a quad but landed a difficult triple flip-triple loop combination and displayed solid technique. "I love being here, and I feel like I belong here," he said of his world championship debut. "It's an incredible experience."
Weiss attributed his sharp focus to Morrison, who said he also works with golfers and tennis players but wouldn't identify them. "You're always tense in competition," Weiss said. "If you can channel that in the right direction it can help you."
Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, trying to continue the Soviet/Russian domination of pair skating, performed a smooth, sure short program to take the lead after the first phase of the pairs competition. The top-ranked U.S. duo was Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of Santa Monica, who were 11th after getting a wide range of marks from the 14-judge panel.
Only nine scores counted for each couple, but neither the public nor the skaters knew which scores were randomly chosen by the computer system.
"When you don't have to be accountable for things, I guess you don't have to be in line with everybody else," Baldwin said of their technical marks, which ranged from 4.3 to 5.6, and their presentation scores of 4.7 to 5.9. The only other couple given a 5.9 for presentation was Totmianina and Marinin, who received 5.7s and 5.8s for required elements and 5.8s and 5.9s for presentation.
Alexander Lakernik of Russia, assigned to referee the men's competition, didn't receive his visa in time and was replaced by Gale Tanger of the United States. An International Skating Union spokesman said Lakernik applied "in reasonable time," but his application "ended up at the bottom of the pile."