Todd Eldredge is playing coy. He is being cagey. He might float like a butterfly, but just try pinning him down.
America's champion men's skater did not get that way by tipping his hand when there might be a tactical advantage in mystery. So when you ask him if he's likely to attempt a quadruple jump in the Olympics, his answer is more serpentine than straight.
''Obviously if you land it, that's great,'' Eldredge said. ''If you don't, and you have a fall or you have a mistake about it, it can affect the look of the program or the total effect of your program. If you do that, you move on and make the best of what's left. (But) What we're concentrating on now is making the program safe.''
Translation: Wait and see.
No reason to rush
The rules allow Eldredge to defer his decision until he actually takes the ice on Valentine's Day in Nagano, and it may be that long before he commits himself to quad or not to quad. Much as elite skaters like to operate from a carefully polished script, circumstances sometimes prompt them to improvise.
Skaters who stumble early in their program often add jumps at the end to shore up their scores. Those who skate cleanly sometimes reduce their degree of difficulty to protect their position. When Kristi Yamaguchi trimmed a triple Salchow to a double in the Winter Games of 1992, her caution contributed to a gold medal.
Eldredge's draw could determine his daring. If he happens to skate late in the long program, he may be more inclined to adjust his program according to the performances of his chief rivals: Canada's Elvis Stojko and Russians Ilia Kulik and Alexei Yagudin.
If Eldredge draws an early turn, the decision gets dicier. He is seen as a strong medal contender, regardless of his jump schedule, but it might take a quad to land the gold.
''Between the short and the long (programs), there's a day off,'' he said. ''We'll obviously know the draw ahead of time. At that time, we have Plan A or Plan B. We can go with either A or B. If A and B both feel comfortable, I don't have any problem going between them.''
If he believes the quad could make a difference in the denomination of his medal, Eldredge may well attempt it. If he is convinced a clean, conservative program will suffice, the quad might seem a foolish risk.
''Until you've stood there on the Olympic ice and had to land a jump, you don't know what it's like,'' said Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist. ''If you can handle it with your eyes closed, fine. But if you can't handle it with your eyes closed and your hands tied behind your back, don't do it.''
For more than a year, Eldredge kept his quadruple toe loop in quarantine. He finally unveiled it in competition with a crash landing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Philadelphia.
Virtually assured of a spot on the Olympic team before he stepped out on the ice, Eldredge's attempt required little risk. He would finish first despite the fall. Yet the failed effort may have served a strategic purpose. Already regarded as the world's most polished men's skater, Eldredge's expanded repertoire could prompt competitors into adding chancier elements to their programs in order to keep pace.
Conversely, it could also lead Eldredge to abandon his own basics. That, at least, is the fear expressed by Eldredge's coach, Richard Callaghan.
''After he watched the tapes on nationals, his attention was on one jump instead of producing the whole package,'' Callaghan said of his protege. ''He's gone back to the whole package. We'll see about the quad.''
It would be hard to live with the regret of leaving a jump out and losing. It might be harder, however, to blow the biggest competition of your life on a leap of faith with inadequate foundation.
''I'm really treating it as a normal competition,'' Todd Eldredge said. ''I basically have a job to do: Do a clean short, be in the top three so I have a chance to win. . . .
''Everybody has their own style. As far as Elvis (Stojko), he's obviously very powerful, a great jumper. The same thing with Ilia (Kulik) - he's got great jumps and a good style. Yagudin may be a little younger than the other guys, but he's got a nice style, a classical line and he's a great jumper. It comes down to who does the best short and long program.''
Chance of a lifetime
He concedes only the obvious. He volunteers nothing noteworthy. Until his competition is complete, Todd Eldredge will be an enigma. ''It would be an amazing feeling,'' Eldredge said, of an Olympic championship. ''From when I was a little kid, it's something I've dreamed about. I stood on top of the podium at the worlds in 1996, and I'd like to have that same feeling.''
He wants gold in the worst way. What he hasn't determined is the best way to get it.
OLYMPIC COVERAGE from Associated Press