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Hottest skates on Ice // Meet the Franchise

Even with a milk mustache outlining her upper lip for a magazine advertising campaign, Kristi Yamaguchi's beauty and charm comes through. At 24, she is young, vibrant and talented _ and America's ice skating sweetheart.

Tonight at 7:30, Yamaguchi and a corps of other Olympic and World Championship skaters will perform at the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg in the 10th annual Discover Card "Stars on Ice" tour.

"I didn't start skating until I was 6," Yamaguchi said during a recent telephone interview. "But, I did take ballet lessons."

Those lessons helped produce the poise and artistry that she has become known for in both the amateur and professional ice skating world.

Once she started skating, it took over her life. Each morning before school, her mother would drive her to practice at 5 a.m. where she would practice for five hours. She would also practice for a few hours after school a couple of days a week. This devotion to the sport brought her many titles culminating with her Gold Medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

Yamaguchi says her life since she turned professional, in the fall after her Olympic conquest, has been busy but fun, keeping her on the road "eight to 10 months of the year." At one time, Yamaguchi not only skated singles, she also skated pairs with fellow Californian Rudy Galindo. The duo became two-time national champions in 1989 and 1990. But trying to skate singles and doubles became difficult for her.

"I had to make a decision to pursue one discipline," she said. "At that time, the Russians and Germans were dominating the sport (pairs) and fifth in the world was the best we could do. (After the split with Galindo), our lives just went in different directions."

After turning professional, Yamaguchi continued her dominance in skating by winning her first two professional competitions. In 1994 and 1995 she teamed with fellow Americans Paul Wylie, Brian Boitano and Nancy Kerrigan to defeat the world team in the highly rated live television shows _ Ice Wars and Ice Wars II.

The petite skater hopes to skate professionally at least two more years. "As long as I'm healthy and my body is holding up," she said.

The skaters of the 55-city Stars On Ice tour have drawn closer because of a tragedy in their ranks. The skating community grieved when pairs skater Sergei Grinkov died suddenly at 28 this past November _ leaving his young wife and skating partner Ekaterina Gordeeva and 3-year-old daughter, Daria. The two had performed for three years with the Stars On Ice group _ thrilling audiences with their signature quadruple twist and other artistic innovations.

A benefit show is scheduled for them on Feb. 27 in Hartford, Conn. It will be taped and aired three days later on CBS. Gordeeva will perform at that show and she has invited many of her skating friends to perform, too.

"Ekaterina is doing okay," said Yamaguchi. "A lot of people are surrounding her, loving her and helping her."

AT A GLANCE

Discover Card Stars on Ice, 10th Anniversary Tour at 7:30 tonight at the ThunderDome, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $25 to $37.50 and are available at Ticketmaster outlets and at the Dome Box Office. One dollar from each ticket purchased with Discover Card will be donated to the local Make-A-Wish chapter.

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