- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

Ana Cecilia Cantu Felix says no one in Mexico has ever heard of figure skating.
The 17-year-old from Monterrey wouldn't have known the sport existed either, if not for a trip to Texas when she was 7. On a hotel television, she watched Paul Wylie skate in the 1992 Olympics and was hooked.
The rink she found in Monterrey is a third of the size of the one at MCI Center, where she competed this week in the World Figure Skating Championships.
Last weekend she practiced in the District for the first time, marking the beginning of the biggest competition she has ever entered. The worlds are a far cry from nationals in Mexico, where nobody bothers learning a triple-triple combination because it's easy to win without it.
Cantu Felix tried one triple at a time. In front of a quarter-filled MCI Center, she fell.
She tried again. Another fall. And another. And another.
"I know I'm not reaching for a medal right now," she said.
Neither are the majority of the 92 singles skaters at the competition this week. Only a fraction have a realistic shot at a medal. For them, competition is a different world.
"You spend as much time as [Americans] Michelle Kwan or Sasha Cohen training," Cantu Felix said. "You know who's the favorite, so the only thing left is doing your best."
Some skaters this week are looking for gold and would be disappointed with silver. Others will be happy if they can stay on their feet and make it past the qualifying round.
At the practice session, Japan's Yoshie Onda was taking a bow after a run-through of her long program, which included numerous triples.
Cantu Felix was off in the corner, still trying to land just one and still falling.
"I just want to make it to the short, and then make it to the long," she said.
The 24 men competing in tonight's free skate started as a group of 40 in Monday's qualifying round.
The headliners Russian Evgeny Plushenko and Americans Michael Weiss and Tim Goebel don't even entertain the idea that they won't be in the top 30 advancing to the short program.
Goebel, who finished second in one of two qualifying groups, was happy he landed two quads and recovered from a disappointing U.S. Nationals in January, when he landed none.
"There's no sense dwelling on it," said "Quad King" Goebel of his quad-less event. "It was pretty awful."
Of course, his "pretty awful" program still earned him a silver medal at the nationals in one of the toughest skating countries in the world.
Awful for Sweden's Kristoffer Berntsson meant something akin to finishing 31st out of 40 competitors at the worlds and missing the cut for the short program by one spot.
He fell several times in a disappointing third trip to the worlds, especially after making the cut last year in Nagano, Japan.
"I don't know what I did," he said after Monday's performance.
He watched Tuesday's short program from the stands.
The pro-American crowd doesn't help. When a skater from the U.S. performed, his cheering section was the entire arena. Some skaters from other countries had a few diehard fans, but not enough to make a difference among thousands.
A group of Australian fans was small in number but big in heart. They made creative signs for their country's competitors, Sean Carlow and Bradley Santer. One showed a jalapeno pepper with the message, "You hot stud."
Carlow finished last in his qualifying group. Santer was second to last. Neither advanced.
Flying under the radar does have its perks. The low-profile skater doesn't have to explain every fall, every missed step.
America's Cohen doesn't have that luxury. This season she won three gold medals and one silver on the Grand Prix circuit but settled for bronze at the nationals. She's been both dominating and disappointing and faces constant questions about her inconsistency.
"I look to put forth my personal best, which I haven't done this season," said Cohen, who finished third in yesterday's qualifying round. "Every time I don't skate perfectly, there's regret."
Italy's Karel Zelenka was happy to be making his first trip to the worlds.
"I've seen so many people. It's exciting," Zelenka said. "It's a beautiful experience. I would like to go in the finals in this competition."
When the day was through Zelenka had made the cut. He finished 28th out of 40.
Because he was one of the last competitors to advance, Zelenka skated in the first group in Tuesday's short program. He handled the pressure well, completing a triple-triple combination and double Axel. He spun out on his triple flip but managed to stay on his feet.
But that's not enough in this field, where the top men do quadruple jumps and triple Axels in combinations.
The top 24 compete in tomorrow's free skate. Zelenka was 25th.
In her qualifying round, Cantu Felix had the disadvantage of skating after Cohen, who nailed all her elements including three triple-double combinations.
As Cantu Felix stepped onto the ice, all the reporters raced after Cohen. They preferred to interview a star than watch an unknown from Mexico.
Both skaters moved to Connecticut this year to train. Cohen works with renowned coach Tatiana Tarasova, who last year helped Russian Alexei Yagudin win Olympic gold.
Cantu Felix trains with Edgar Beckley, also from Monterrey. They are here for a year or two, along with Cantu Felix's 15-year-old sister, also a skater. Her sister medaled at this year's North American Challenge, an event on the novice level.
It was the first medal ever won by a Mexican in an international figure skating competition.
Training in the United States has helped Cantu Felix, too, but not as much as she would like. She hit only her double Axel and one triple jump.
"It is frustrating knowing you can do the jumps and then you fall," she said. "Really, really wanting to do stuff doesn't work."
Only one person in her group finished lower than she did.
Ana Cecilia Cantu Felix's first trip to the world championships was over.

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