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Carruthers duo ended US medal drought in electrifying fashion

Charles and Maureen Carruthers know what it means to scrimp and save. They've done it for the last 11 years so that they could pay $150,000 in figure skating expenses incurred by their adopted children, Peter and Kitty.

No one needed to ask them the rewards after the Olympic pairs competition, in which the acrobatic duo captured America's first silver medal in this Soviet-dominated discipline since 1952 - and first medal of any kind since 1960.

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It took an electrifying and virtually flawless effort, too, for the brother-sister tandem from Burlington, Mass., to slip in between the Soviet pairs of Elena Valova-Oleg Vassiliev (gold) and Larissa Selezneva-Oleg Makarov (bronze).

''I don't think we've ever skated any better, which is the main thing,'' said Peter to a packed press conference. ''Getting the medal is just an extension - a wonderful extension.''

The scintillating performance broke a US medal drought that was well into its fourth day by the time the Carrutherses swooped across the Zetra Arena ice late Sunday evening.

Dreams of a hockey medal had long since evaporated after losses to Canada and Czechoslovakia, and no individual competitor in Uncle Sam's promising stable had finished higher than eighth.

Things weren't as bleak as some were painting them, however. For one thing, stormy weather had delayed the Alpine skiing events, in which the US had histPt es. Also, other talented figure skaters were awaiting their opportunities in the men's, women's and dancing events.

Certainly what the Carrutherses had done would get the US Olympic ball rolling - as indeed it did, with Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper finishing 1-2 in the women's giant slalom the next day.

But Sunday night belonged to Peter and Kitty. As their coach Ron Ludington said afterward, ''This was one of the most electrifying performances I've ever seen. I really expected higher scores (than a string of mostly 5.7s out of 6.0 ).''

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A highly partisan flag-waving American crowd was desperately seeking some heroes, and when they were discovered on this emotion-charged evening, it was as if a bit of that old Lake Placid hockey magic had returned.

The first sign that something special was in the air came when the lesser known US team of Jill Watson and Burt Lancon, who finished sixth, caught fire in the performance of their young lives.

Four years earlier, Peter, now 24, and Kitty, who is two years younger, had risen to the occasion in much the same way, coming up with a strong fifth-place finish at the 1980 Olympics after Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, America's top pair, withdrew because of an injury.

Now a palpable excitement hung over the rink as the call came for Kitty and Peter take the ice. Their confidence was surging too. ''I can't explain the feeling, but we looked at each other and knew we could do it,'' said Peter, who looks bigger than his listed 5 ft. 11 in, 165 pounds. The illusion, no doubt, stems from the contrast to his 5-1, 99-pound sister, whom he seems capable of thowing into the seats.

They make a dynamic tandem, eager to show off the exciting and innovative American brand of skating.

It helps tremendously, of course, that Kitty is a resilient and gritty competitor unwilling to let a crash landing here or there discourage her. Last month she had to skate the latter portion of the long program at the national championships practically on memory after a bad spill attempting a three-revolution throw called the Throw Triple Salchow. Undeterred, they went on to their fourth US crown.

There was speculation here that the ''Flying Carrutherses'' would haul out the ultimate showstopper - a four-revolution throw still untried in competition. They downplayed it, though, and said they'd leave the decision to their coach.

With Kitty skating on a tender ankle and the pair tied for second entering the long program, Ludington considered the quadruple an unnecessary risk.

If you think this means they played it close to the vest, though, think again. This was a typical Carruthers-style thrill show with all the breathtaking moves any fan could ask for, all executed without a wobble on a night filled with pratfalls for many other skaters.

The biggest crowd grabbers were the Throw Triple Salchow, a ''hydrant lift'' (called that because Kitty sails over Peter's head like a child leaping a fire hydrant), a lateral twist catch in which Peter grabs Kitty as she makes like a spinning torpedo, and a ''mad hatter'' move in which they take turns flinging one another around the ice with hands joined (a trick from Tai and Randy's bag of goodies).

''Three minutes into the program, we pause before going into our ethnic piece of music,'' Peter recounted. ''I looked up at the Olympic flags at the end of the arena and thought about having only a minute and a half left in a perfect performance. I wasn't thinking about medals.''

Nor was he when asked to show his medal at the press conference. Ludington had to retrieve it from one of his pockets.

Peter accomodatingly posed with his new prize, but began to feel uneasy without Kitty, who was undergoing a standard Olympic doping test. ''This is terrible. I want my sister here,'' he blurted out.

''It's like we're in business together. We fight and argue sometimes, but we care for each other. She understands me and I understand her, and actually, I don't think anyone else can tolerate me.''

Maybe not, but on this night people were standing in line for the chance to try.

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