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    Saturday, February 14, 1998

    Kulik's cool and quad good for gold

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Ilya Kulik's cool, as much as his quad, made him an Olympic champion Saturday night, carrying him from his first mountain of a jump to a red-cheeked smile at the end.
     No Olympic skater ever landed so many tough jumps. Few skated with such sophistication, as rhapsodic as his music. And not since half a century ago did a young man in his first Winter Games claim the figure skating gold.
     The 20-year-old Russian left two world champions staring up at him after the free skate, gimpy-legged Canadian Elvis Stojko from the silver medalist's platform and broken-hearted American Todd Eldredge from far, far away in fourth.
     From the vantage point of swashbuckling Frenchman Philippe Candeloro, whose captivating performance in the free skate lifted him from fifth place to bronze, Kulik may reign at the top of the sport for a long time to come.
     "He has a chance to get many, many gold medals," said Candeloro, who watched Kulik skate and knew immediately where the gold was going. "I see quad and triple-triple, and I say, 'OK, he won."'
     Everyone skated for second place after Kulik's performance -- a clean quadruple toe loop and eight flawless triple jumps interwoven with the kind of style that projected at once a mood of solitude and delight. Kulik caught perfectly the spirit of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and he turned it into a vehicle for his amazing vaults.
     Kulik skated so well, it was almost possible to ignore his bizarre plastic shirt -- banana yellow with big black blotches.
     Neither Alexei Urmanov, the gold medalist at Lillehammer, nor Viktor Petrenko at Albertville, nor Brian Boitano at Calgary attempted such a demanding program. And Kulik showed he could not only outleap them, but he could approach them as a stylist, though he still has far to go.
     Kulik knew last year he had to inject more artistry, more finesse into his skating, so he changed his coach and choreographer and went back to work at his adopted rink in Marlborough, Mass.
     "I was missing some crucial link, something that makes you a winner," Kulik said.
     He always had the leaping ability, though his stamina was suspect. Now he has the whole package.
     "It was truly my best skating," he said after becoming the first man to win the men's figure skating gold in his Olympic debut since Dick Button won his first at age 18 in 1948. Button, who also won a gold in 1952, was on hand to watch Kulik skate.
     "The pressure was just unbelievable all these eight days. Today, I couldn't sleep during the day. I was so nervous, skating my program all the time in my mind," Kulik said.
     He had reason to worry. All the buildup going into the Olympics centered on Stojko, a silver medalist at Lillehammer, and Eldredge, fives times the U.S. champion.
     Though Kulik led after the short program, either the second-place Stojko or the third-place Eldredge could have grabbed the gold by winning the free skate.
     But Eldredge followed Kulik onto the ice, and less than a minute later everyone knew the American had virtually no chance. Instead of the triple axel-triple toe loop he planned, he followed the axel with a double. Not a fatal mistake, just the first of several. He made a similar error on the next triple combination, then blew a triple axel, and skidded to the ice when he tried in desperation to add another triple axel.
     In all, it was a disaster. Eldredge didn't even bother to watch the rest of the skaters.
     "I knew how I skated, and more than likely it was not an Olympic medal performance," he said. "When I finished there were no thoughts of medals, or any of that. It was not the performance I wanted to put out there. That's the way it goes."
     A few minutes later, sitting backstage, Eldredge heard Candeloro's scores, ranging from 5.7 to 6.0 for artistry.
     "At that point there was no chance for me," Eldredge said. "I packed up."
     Candeloro's theatrical performance as the gallant swordsman, D'Artagnan from "The Three Musketeers," was simply exhilarating. His fencing moves, his footwork, his playfulness dazzled the crowd, which showered him with flowers at the end. It hardly mattered that he stepped out one of his triple axels or landed shakily on a triple salchow. For sheer artistry, Candeloro had everyone beat.
     All that remained was to see whether Stojko's jumping genius would carry him past Kulik. Not even close.
     Stojko skated without apparent injury in the short program, and neither he nor his coaches ever mentioned that he had a torn groin. But it was evident moments into his free skate that something was wrong.
     Rather than land the quad near the start as everyone expected, he pulled up with a triple toe loop, and didn't even try to combine that with another triple as planned.
     For Stojko to miss the quad was almost a guarantee he would miss the gold. His artistry would never carry him.
     Stojko showed courage in persevering, pushing his painful right leg through the rest of the program and producing a total of eight tiple jumps to claim his second silver.
     He watched his scores with a grimace, clutching his right thigh with his hands. When he rose, his coaches had to help carry him away. Stojko returned for the medal ceremony, limping badly and wearing tennis shoes, then left for the hospital without talking about his lost opportunity.
     Stojko's coach, Doug Leigh, described the injury as a torn abductor muscle and a pinched nerve in the groin, originally suffered in the Canadian championships five weeks ago but kept secret until now.
     "He knew what shape he was in and he knew he didn't have enough time (to recover)," Leigh said. "The last time he did any jumps was the day of the short program.
     "After the first triple axel-triple toe, he was in excruciating pain. Before he went on the ice, he kept telling himself, '4 minutes, 40 seconds, 4 minutes, 40 seconds. Somebody just be with me and get me through it."'

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