Elvis Stojko was too tight. The most muscular of figure skaters had aggravated an old groin pull, and skated about the ice with a measured stride and a mauled spirit. Moves he had mastered he was too sore to try.
North America's preeminent male skaters would have chosen their defining moments differently if offered that chance, but the schedule said it was time to skate.
Olympic dreams that were nurtured for a decade or more evaporated in the space of 4ï minutes Saturday night at the Winter Games. Eldredge, five times the American champion, staggered through a mistake-filled program and again missed a medal. Stojko, Canada's three-time world champion renowned for his audacity, was forced to play safely and settled for silver.
Trying too hard
Both men lived an athlete's nightmare, losing the biggest competition of their lives at something less than the top of their games. Stojko was physically unable to give it his best shot. Eldredge was simply not equal to the situation.
''I guess I tried a little bit too hard again,'' Eldredge said. ''Throughout the whole program, most of the jumps that I did, I had to pull them out. They weren't easy jumps. I was a little bit more fatigued than I should have been.''
He had neither an explanation nor an excuse, just the melancholy look of a man who has crumbled too often at critical times. Last fall, after finishing fourth in a competition in Paris, Eldredge sought sanctuary by hiding out at a construction site instead of appearing for interviews. This hardly enhanced his reputation for resiliency.
''I am afraid for Todd,'' France's Philippe Candeloro had said before Saturday's free skate. ''Because when he has big pressure, I have seen Todd miss his program.''
To no one's surprise, Eldredge avoided the quadruple jump he has yet to land in competition Saturday night. To widespread astonishment, he botched back-to-back combinations jumps and then fell as he sought to regain lost ground with a triple axel. He skated to ''Gettysburg,'' and performed like Pickett.
''I knew when I got off the ice that it was not a medal performance,'' Eldredge said. ''It (the medal) was something that I really wanted, but everybody does not get everything they want.''
''This was very important to him,'' said Richard Callaghan, Eldredge's coach. ''He has waited so long, but he forgot to put it in perspective. He tried too hard. He was a little tight and his timing was off because of that.''
Third following Thursday's short program, Eldredge's shot at a gold medal was gone before he even stepped out on the ice. Russia's Ilia Kulik, whose program preceded Eldredge's, opened with a quadruple toe loop and finished without a major flaw.
A flawless neon giraffe
Kulik was dressed like a neon giraffe, but his skating suggests a gazelle. He would likely have won the gold medal regardless of the condition of Stojko's right abductor muscle. Unable to perform his cutting-skate-edge quadruple-triple combination, Stojko was fortunate to salvage second place.
''I wanted to be part of the legend of the sport, to be part of the cornerstone that helped change it,'' Stojko had said. ''In boxing, people remember Muhammad Ali. In martial arts, you think of Bruce Lee. In track and field, it's Jesse Owens. Those people took their sports to a new level that is still untouchable in some ways.''
Todd Eldredge never had the nerve to suggest he was an original. Instead, he encouraged comparisons to John Elway, the great Denver quarterback long denied a championship. He said it was his turn to ''show people.''
What Todd Eldredge showed Saturday was painful to watch. Worse, it is how he will be remembered.
Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.
U.S., Canada ready to rumble
Special Enquirer coverage