Russian Skaters Look to Utah

NEW YORK -- Brian Boitano has been in the middle of a burning rivalry that carried into the Olympics. He knows exactly what Russia's Alexei Yagudin and Yevgeny Plushchenko are experiencing.

He also knows quite a bit about what Michelle Kwan is going through.

Boitano won the "Battle of the Brians" with Canada's Brian Orser at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. It was the crowning achievement of a masterful career in which he also won two world championships and four national titles.

"There are a lot of parallels," Boitano says. "The pressure is huge.

"Remember, though, we were an American and a Canadian skating on North American soil. This is not the same thing for the Russians. For these guys, it's nice they don't have to deal with that."

But it also should be remembered the two Brians were on friendly terms. Yagudin, winner of three world crowns, and Plushchenko, the defending world champ, don't get along.

That adds more fire to a rivalry that will enliven the Salt Lake City figure skating competition.

"This will make them sharper," Boitano says. "I think the animosity works better for Plushchenko. From what I know, Yagudin doesn't seem to like their not getting along. Plushchenko doesn't even think about Yagudin."

Maybe he should, because Yagudin ended a losing streak against Plushchenko by beating him this month at the Grand Prix final. Boitano thinks that was a critical victory for Yagudin.

"I think Yag needed the Grand Prix for his confidence," Boitano says. "He has one win under his belt against his top competition, and you've got to have that.

"Before our Olympics, Brian had beaten me at Skate Canada head-to-head, but I felt I should have won, and that's what a lot of people told me. So I felt like, with all that people were saying, it made me feel better and there was hope if I skated as well at Skate Canada, they would give me the marks."

While Boitano isn't making any predictions for Salt Lake City, he does think it isn't necessarily a two-man show. He believes one of the Americans could "upset the apple cart."

"If these first two guys, Yagudin and Plushchenko, do not skate their best, one of the Americans could slip through," he says, mentioning current U.S. titlist Tim Goebel and five-time U.S. champ Todd Eldredge. "I do think they could really put a spin on things. I think the judges look for the clean performances, if the Americans do them."

One person he expects a strong performance from is Kwan. Boitano, one of Kwan's idols, knows he couldn't have attempted what Kwan is doing this season -- going coachless.

"No way," he says with a laugh. "For me, it was so important to have someone [coach Linda Leaver] you can connect with and contact. People underestimate the pressure an Olympic event is.

"But Michelle is a smart woman and a smart competitor. She knows what she needs, and it might build a fire and make her hungry."