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'98 Nagano Olympics

Ilia Kulik turns figure skating into personal showcase

February 15, 1998

New York Daily News

NAGANO -- Not long after 20-year-old Ilia Kulik began his long program in White Ring on Saturday night, he gathered speed, leaped off the ice and did four revolutions before descending.

It was a quadruple toe loop. He followed it with a triple-jump combination, and another triple that was practically the stuff of Jordan, impossibly high and graceful.

On a night of wounded legs and battered psyches in the men's figure-skating final, a long-limbed Russian with red cheeks and a taxi-cab yellow shirt turned what was figured to be a close competition into a 4 1/2-minute slam dunk.

In the process, he added one more helping of Olympic heartache for a pair of world-champion elders -- Elvis Stojko and Todd Eldredge -- and showcased a truly transcendent talent.

"I just love to skate. I love jumping," said Kulik.

"When I saw him do the quad, and a triple/triple, I said, 'OK, he won,"' said Frenchman Philippe Candeloro, who captured his second consecutive Olympic bronze.

Skating to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Kulik became the first Winter Games male rookie since Dick Button in 1948 to win the title.

"He didn't change the sport tonight, but what he did do as win the Olympic gold by skating very solidly and very cleanly, and that's highly commendable," Button said.

Kulik skated first among the final six competitors, followed by Eldredge, 26, the five-time U.S. champion whose previous Olympic trip ended in 10th place in Albertville in 1992.

Eldredge, tight from the start, cut the back end of a triple combination to a double. He turned another triple to a single, and finally fell on a triple axel. He was shaky throughout, and distraught afterward.

"That wasn't the performance I wanted to put on out there," said Eldredge, who finished fourth.

Eldredge was the world champion in 1996 -- the only time in the last four years the title did not belong to Stojko, the blocky Canadian black-belt who won the silver in Lillehammer in 1994.

Stojko's program is long on power and force, reinforcing his belief that skating need not be soft and frilly to be appealing. He was the final skater of the night, and not close to his best, his coach, Doug Leigh, disclosing afterward that Stojko had been suffering from a painful groin injury for a month.

They kept it a secret until Saturday night.

"We decided we would never turn back," Leigh said. "In our minds, it was, 'Whatever it takes.' And tonight it took a lot. As far as I'm concerned, he should've gotten a medal for bravery."

Stojko never landed his quad, doubled a triple jump and never seemed able to kick it into his full, strutting gear. He grimaced as he finished, and had to be helped to the kiss-and-cry area.

Shortly after receiving his silver medal, Stojko was on the way to the hospital for treatment. He is the third Canadian world champion in the last decade -- Brian Orser and Kurt Browning were the others -- to have the Olympic gold elude him.

As valiant as Stojko was, the truth is he was fortunate to hold on to the silver ahead of Candeloro, who was dressed like a buccaneer (complete with black, thigh-high leggings and black gloves), and did a Zorro number across the ice that had the crowd in a frenzy. The only one better was Kulik, who moved to Marlborough, Mass., to train with coach Tatiana Tarasova a few years ago, and showed the payoff in White Ring.

"It was my best performance," Kulik said.

Kulik has often been under-conditioned and inconsistent. He said the pressure the last eight days was "unbelievable," an adjective many were using to describe his performance.

The only doubts about him concerned the shirt, the taxicab tint and the black spots. Kulik smiled.

"I don't think there will be many questions about the shirt, because the shirt won," he said.



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