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Meno-Sand skate for fourth straight U.S. title

February 10, 1997

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Forget the talk about world champions Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge as 1998 Olympic favorites. The best chance for American figure skating gold at Nagano might come from Jenni Meno and Todd Sand.

Meno and Sand go for their fourth straight U.S. Figure Skating Championships title this week. The pairs short program is scheduled for Wednesday, with the free skate Thursday.

The last couple to win four consecutive American championships was Kitty and Peter Carruthers from 1981-84. Just before them, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner won five in a row.

But neither won Olympic gold, although the Carruthers took silver in 1984. And both those pairs were up against the Soviet juggernaut.

Today, Meno and Sand are ranked third in the world off their bronze medals at the last two world championships. But they have beaten most of their contemporaries. The Soviet pairs powerhouse has been dissipated, although the Russians remain formidable, if not unbeatable. Meanwhile, their own level of skating keeps improving.

``Two years ago, most people said they had done as good a job as they will do,″ said John Nicks, their coach since Meno split with Scott Wendland and Sand stopped skating with Natasha Kuchiki after the 1992 Olympics. ``I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how they’ve continued to improve as performers.

``I think it’s not only the time skating together that has begun to show, but their stable relationship. I had never worked coaching a married couple before, but their being self-sufficient and somewhat independent has helped their skating.″

Meno and Sand wed in July 1995.

``We know each other so well that we know what each other is thinking and what we are going to do,″ Meno said. ``Pairs are supposed to be skated as one and our being so close helps us do that.″

Also helping was a move from Costa Mesa, Calif., to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where Meno and Sand are working with Irina Rodnina and Frank Carroll. Rodnina, who won gold medals at three successive Olympics with two partners _ Alexei Ulanov in 1972, Alexander Zaitsev in 1976 and 1980 _ tutors them on run-throughs of their programs. Carroll, Kwan’s coach, is considered one of the best jumping coaches.

``It’s absolutely been the most positive thing we did this year,″ said Sand, who has struggled with his jumps. ``I have been able to work with Frank, who coached me while I was a singles skater. We’re skating with a lot of great skaters, including Michelle Kwan, and some other good pairs. It’s made me personally almost fall in love with skating again.″

Nicks, who is working with his last world-class pair _ he is phasing out pairs coaching and concentrating on singles _ notes that ``training methods of five-six years ago are not valid anymore.″ So having three top-level coaches working with such a quality couple makes sense.

Meno and Sand will, as they always do, skate to classical music this week. Their short program is to Chopin’s ``Fantasy Impromptu,″ while their free skate is to music by Rachmaninov.

They haven’t been able to show off the programs much in competition _ both have been injured this season. Sand had a severe wrist sprain, which limited the lifts they could do, and Meno broke her wrist when she fell from a lift.

After withdrawing from Skate America, they finished second at Trophee Lalique to Oksana Kazikova and Artur Dmitriev of Russia. But they won the NHK Trophy in Japan, edging 1994 world champions Evgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov, then beat defending world champs Marina Eltsova and Andrey Bushkov of Russia at the Japan Open.

A victory at nationals would place Meno and Sand among the favorites for the Champions Series finals in two weeks, and for next month’s world championships. Golden showings at either of those events would give them as strong a chance for medals at the 1998 Olympics as any Americans.

``Definitely, everything is a stepping stone to the Olympics,″ Sand said. ``Of course, the Olympics is always something you look at in the distance.″

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