Bountiful's Holly Cook had been uncertain for months about her convictions and her often-interrupted training, and her coach says that came together against her on the ice at the Target Center Saturday afternoon as she fell twice in the freestyle and dropped from fourth place to an overall sixth in the championship ladies' division of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It was, however, a wonderful day for Tonya Harding of Portland, who had to requalify to compete in the national championships in the Pacific Coast Sectional at Bountiful in January. Harding had the performance of her life, including the first successful triple axel by an American woman in competition, to win the title over favored Kristi Yamaguchi.The highlight of Harding's freestyle program was the triple axel, which only Midori Ito of Japan has hit in competition. It came 45 seconds into the routine and provoked a massive roar from the crowd of 10,346 and a huge grin from Harding, who'd fallen while performing the axel at Bountiful in the sectional.

Cook had placed third at the 1990 Championships and was also the bronze medalist in the 1990 World Championships, but she won't advance this year after Saturday's finish.

"I just think it was all the unsuredness of what she wanted to do and whether she wanted to do it," said Coach Kris Sherard, also of Bountiful. "She was just scared." Sherard said Cook said to her before the performance, "I could be watching this on TV and eating a donut."

Cook has had trouble getting uncluttered practice time at her home rink in Bountiful and finally went to Colorado to train, but that put her far behind. So, too, did the month-long exhibition tour of champions that she skated in last spring after the World Championships.

"I don't feel she's finished," said Sherard about the 20-year-old skater. "She was just burned out after that tour." Sherard said she hopes Cook will now take a few months to gather herself and then train toward next year and the 1992 Olympics. "I still feel she could do well next year," says Sherard.

Cook's sister, Kelly, says Holly has been working on doing a triple axel that could put her right back into the upper echelon.

Cook hit her first two jumps, including her trademark effortless double axel, but she fell on her second and third triples, a loop and a salchow. Sherard said it was the fall on the salchow that was the disaster because Cook thought she'd landed it and then it slipped away. Late in the program, she leaned out of a jump and doubled what should have been a triple loop in a combination jump, then ended with a, "Well, I tried" half smile.

Her marks ranged from 5.2 to 5.5 for technical merit and 5.1 to 5.5 for artistic impression, allowing Tonia Kwiatkowski and Tisha Walker to pass her in the final standings.

Harding, skating second-to-last, hit seven triples altogether, including a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. Harding also showed a marked improvement in style over previous years. She received one perfect 6.0 for technical merit, the first for a woman in the U.S. championships. The rest of her marks, mostly 5.9s, gave her first place with eight of nine judges.

"I just planned on going out and doing my thing, no matter what anybody else does," Harding said.

The victory capped a comeback for Harding. She was third in the 1989 nationals - only two Americans went to the world championships that year - then fell to seventh last year in Salt Lake City when dogged by a cold and 103-degree fever that later turned into pneumonia. That was why she had to requalify at Bountiful.

The favorite, Yamaguchi, was followed by Nancy Kerrigan. Those three will represent the United States in next month's world championships at Munich, Germany. It will be the first worlds for Harding and Kerrigan, of Stoneham, Mass., and third for Yamaguchi.

While Harding was soaring, Yamaguchi's performance was relatively flat. She fell on a triple salchow and, although she hit some other difficult jumps, her skating was uninspired. She finished second for the third straight year. "My first goal was to make the world team again," said Yamaguchi, 19, of Fremont, Calif. "I went out there and performed almost as well as I can skate, except that one mistake." Yamaguchi did finish first with one judge.

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Harding succeeds Jill Trenary as American champion. Trenary, national titlist in 1987, 1989 and 1990, is sidelined with an ankle injury that also will keep her out of the world championships. With Ito doubtful for the worlds after jaw surgery, the American women have an excellent shot at keeping the world crown. Trenary won it last year.