Once More, with Feeling
Within minutes, though, his shoulder popped back into place, and he went on to skate a nearly flawless first-place routine. "It shows he has the guts to skate when it counts," says his coach of 16 years, Richard Callaghan. Indeed, Eldredge, 26, won again at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia last month—capturing his fifth national title and setting the stage for what most likely will be his last good shot at winning the prize he covets most: a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, which open next week. "It's been my dream," he says, "since I was a kid."
To make it come true, Eldredge will have to overcome not only other top skaters, including his friend Elvis Stojko from Canada, but also his reputation as an Olympic underachiever and a skater who folded come crunch time. "I was supposed to be the next Scott Hamilton, the next Brian Boitano," he says, citing two previous U.S. gold medalists. Instead, injuries and misfortune have plagued the handsome skating prodigy from Chatham, Mass. Disillusioned, Eldredge briefly quit the sport altogether in 1993, returning to Chatham to ponder his future and play a lot of golf. Still, the dream wouldn't die. "Todd is not a quitter, he's a fighter," says ABC skating analyst Dick Button. "He's got a singlemindedness that most skaters who fail don't have."
Early on, Eldredge seemed destined only for success. When he was 5, his father, John, a commercial fisherman, and his mother, Ruth, a practical nurse, took young Todd and his older brother Scott to a local rink to play hockey. But Eldredge had other ideas. "He was watching the figure skaters jump and spin, and he said, 'Mom, I want to do that,' " remembers Ruth, who drove Todd to daily two-hour practice sessions before kindergarten. Realizing their son's love of skating was no passing fancy, the Eldredges remortgaged their home—and John's fishing boat—to help pay for private lessons.
Eldredge spent much of his adolescence away from home, training with Callaghan in Philadelphia and Denver while his family and Chatham neighbors raised money for his expenses. In 1990, when he was 18, Eldredge—a powerful jumper with an explosive triple axel—became the toast of the U.S. skating scene by winning his first national championship. But in 1992, a sore back—caused by one leg being slightly longer than the other, along with poor conditioning—wrecked his Olympic chances, and in '93 he skated miserably at the nationals. "He was listening to too many people about what they wanted from him," says Callaghan. "He lost his focus."
That's when Eldredge packed his bags and went home to Chatham. "I didn't feel motivated to skate," he says. But three months later the desire was back—along with the bad luck. Prior to the 1994 nationals, a fever-stricken Eldredge fainted in his Detroit hotel bathroom and banged his head on the sink. The next day he fell twice during a routine and failed to make the Olympic squad. This time, though, there was no crisis of confidence. Rededicated to his sport, Eldredge went on to win the 1995 nationals and the 1996 world championships. "I'm inspired by how hard he trains," says skating sensation Tara Lipinski, 15, Eldredge's Nagano teammate. "Todd has become my mentor and friend."
Not to mention her fierce rival in Foosball, the table soccer game they play at their Detroit training rink. "I'm still trying to beat him at it," says Lipinski, so determined to trounce him that she bought her own Foosball table. Eldredge, who is single and unattached ("I don't have enough time to date," he says) and lives alone in a three-bedroom condo in suburban Detroit, recently purchased a pricey toy of his own: a $150,000 cherry red Ferrari, paid for with his earnings from touring, shows and televised competitions. "I love," he says, "to take it up to the McDonald's drive-through window."
Though the Ferrari can get up to 180 mph, Eldredge will only admit that he once hit 120 somewhere in Michigan. Impressive, but not quite maximum performance—sort of like a certain skater's career until now. But that could all change in Nagano. "He wants to win the gold medal so badly. He's got a great chance," says his coach. "Todd is on a mission."
LORENZO BENET in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.