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Skaters Watson, Oppegard quickly form a winning combination

Their names aren't that familiar to the general public, at least not yet. But by the 1988 Winter Olympics, it's quite possible Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard will be as well known as Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner were on the eve of the 1980 Lake Placid Games or as Kitty and Peter Carruthers upon entering the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. The team of Watson and Oppegard has shown all the promise and charisma Americans have come to associate with the top United States pairs skaters, only they've done it in incredibly short order. Whereas the other aforementioned teams were paired as preteens and polished their routines over many years together, Jill and Peter achieved almost instant success by skating standards.

Just eight months after joining forces, they won the 1985 United States pairs title. Jill was 21 at the time, Peter 25, ages when a lot of skaters have given up amateur careers to join professional ice shows. From there they went on to the world championships and finished fourth, which amazed most observers.

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Now they are the seasoned defending titleholders at this week's US Figure Skating Championships in Uniondale, N.Y., and the favorites to retain their crown. (ABC's ``Wide World of Sports'' will present coverage of the event Saturday, Feb. 8, 4:30-6 p.m, EST).

The Watson-Oppegard alliance, which seems so natural now, was forged when both skaters were reassessing their futures.

Jill and Burt Lancon finished sixth at the '84 Winter Olympics, but when he turned pro, she was in the market for a new partner. Peter, meanwhile, felt he'd pretty much exhausted his options as an amateur pairs skater and considered a move to the professional ranks about his only alternative.

He didn't feel satisfied, though. ``I spent most of my career looking for the right partner,'' he explained. ``I would have the the feeling this is OK, but it's just not it.

``The people I'd want to skate with were taken, and at our level it's difficult to find somebody available and ready to go,'' said Peter, who watched the '84 Winter Olympics on TV. Jill, of course, was looking for her Mr. Right on the ice, too, and while living in California, where both trained for a while, she quickly sized up Peter as a good skating match. The vibrations were mutual.

``I knew Jill was the talent I wanted to work with, and I think she felt the same way about me,'' related Oppegard.

She did indeed, which is what made it possible to vault the major mental hurdle in their way.

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``The hardest thing is accepting that you have to start all over -- that you have to learn again what makes someone tick,'' said Jill. ``You have to build a good working relationship, and even some pairs that have one won't be that good. We're fortunate to have the talent to be good together.''

The chemistry was readily apparent. In their first weeks practicing together, they achieved things they'd never accomplished skating with other partners.

Johnny Johns, their current coach at the Detroit Skating Club and a former US pairs and ice dancing champion during the mid-1970s, says the Watson-Oppegard style is ``very soothing. You sense that everything is going to happen real nicely.''

In that regard, they resemble Tai and Randy, the former world champions, who always present a smooth, finished, and polished look on the ice.

At the same time, however, Jill, who hails from Bloomington, Ind., and Peter, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., draw on their athletic reservoirs to incorporate some of the same ``big trick'' excitement that helped the Carruthers duo win the silver medal at Sarajevo.

The double swoop lift and the swan flip-over are original moves with them, and Oppegard keeps dreaming up more. ``I've got a new one on the drawing board,'' he piped up exuberantly before a benefit appearance in Boston. ``It's something we can only use in show skating, since it's difficult and also illegal for competition.'' Without unveiling the trick, he hinted that it was ``kind of wild,'' with Jill's skates wrapped around his neck.

Despite their obvious daring, Oppegard claims they're not interested in scaring either their audiences or themselves. ``We know when we're out there just how each hand has to be positioned, and if they're not in the right place, we're not going to do the lift.''

Minimizing the dangers, however, does not mean eliminating them, and each partner has to be willing to take some lumps. Jill, who is described as ``a pretty tough young lady'' by her coach, broke her nose not long ago, but hardly missed any practice. Peter, meanwhile, has occasionally been clipped by Jill's twirling skate blades, and once had his costume ripped to shreds during a competition warm-up.

At 6 ft. 1 in. and 180 lbs., Oppegard is considerably bigger than the petite Watson (5 ft., 93 lbs.), which helps in excecuting some of their dynamic lifts. Both lift weights, though, because as she explained, ``It's not just him doing the lifts. The woman has to be able to hold her position in the air.''

Still, Peter has brought a lot of physical strength to the team, which becomes a major asset when blended with Jill's winning experience and determination.

``We're both very, very competitive and we're both perfectionists,'' Watson said of other key characteristics.

The size differential between the two could be an aesthetic drawback if they weren't so conscious of their ``line'' on the ice and of skating in unison. They've even capitalized on the situation by incorporating a lot of shadow skating into their routines, in which he mirrors her actions from a short distance behind.

It helps, too, that they look well-matched. Both exude a maturity that audiences find attractive in pairs skating; also, he is handsome, she is pretty.

They consider themselves full-time skaters now, driven by the mutual goal of skating in and possibly winning a medal at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. That doesn't seem unrealistic, either, especially given the skating magic they've unlocked since finding each other.

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