- SKATING - Confidence and grace nets Kwan fifth title

Monday, January 22
Confidence and grace nets Kwan fifth title

BOSTON -- The best athletes know when they are in trouble. Only champions like Michelle Kwan know how to get out of it with such grace.

Kwan won her fourth straight U.S. Figure Skating Championships title Saturday night with a strong free skate that earned two 6.0s. But she was far from perfect early in the program, cutting down her triple-triple toe loop combination to a double-double.

Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan scored seven 5.9s and two 6.0s for artistry.

So the three-time world champion simply threw in a triple toe loop in the final moments.

"After I landed the double-double, I went uh-oh," Kwan said. "I had to snap myself back in. If I stayed in that mode, it would have been disastrous.

"It does separate a lot of skaters," she added of her timely innovation. "You have to be physically tough. You have to just get over it."

Kwan, 20, has five U.S. crowns -- as many as such Olympic gold medalists as Peggy Fleming and Tenley Albright. She entered nationals such a prohibitive favorite that she began hearing whispers this event was nothing more than a practice session before the Grand Prix finals next month and the world championships in March.

"It's difficult. A lot of people are like, `Oh, yeah, good luck at nationals.' It's so easy to say it's an easy bye into worlds," she said. "It's not.

"I'm trying the best I can. All this week, I felt I can do this, I still belong. It doesn't feel like I have to prove myself again."

She proved she is, by far, the best in America.

Certainly better than runner-up Sarah Hughes and third-place Angela Nikodinov, both of whom will join Kwan at the worlds in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"There is very good and there is great," said Hughes.

Kwan nailed every other element of her program to "Song of the Black Swan," displaying the elegance and showmanship for which she has become famous. It wasn't quite the show Kwan staged in the short program Friday night, when she grabbed seven perfect marks for artistry from the nine judges.

Still, it was impressive enough for seven 5.9s and two 6.0s for artistry. As a sign said in the FleetCenter, "Inaugurate Michelle," and the judges did, making her the first woman to win four in a row since Linda Fratianne in 1980.

Her victory also gave coach Frank Carroll a sweep of the singles events; he also works with Tim Goebel, who won his first men's championship. It was the third time since 1995 that a coach swept the titles, with Richard Callaghan doing it in '95 (Nicole Bobek and Todd Eldredge) and '97 (Tara Lipinski and Eldredge). Carroll also coached Fratianne.

Hughes, considered the staunchest challenger to Kwan thanks to several outstanding performances this season, never mounted that challenge. While the 15-year-old skated well, she simply isn't at Kwan's level yet.

Actually, no one is when Kwan is on. And for much of these national championships, which were marred by injuries and mediocre performances in men's and pairs, Kwan was right on.

Carroll said these were Kwan's two best performances since the 1998 nationals in Philadelphia, where she collected 15 perfect marks. She went on to win the silver medal in the Nagano Olympics and her second world championship that year.

Hughes hit six triples, but she was not as polished as Kwan. Her landings did not flow and she wasn't as expressive as the winner.

"I am happy with what I did, because it's never easy to go out at nationals and skate your best program," Hughes said. "But it was better than last year, and next year will be even better."

Nikodinov, portraying "Sleeping Beauty," landed six triple jumps, but none in combination. That might have cost her second place, because her presentation was world-class. She even pretended to be asleep during the slow portion of the music, then woke up into a big spiral.

Two top contenders, 2000 runner-up Sasha Cohen and 1999 sensation Naomi Nari Nam, withdrew earlier in the week with injuries.

But Jennifer Kirk, a local favorite, who was fourth, Amber Corwin and Beatrisa Liang all skated well -- a marked contrast from the rest of these nationals. They showed that U.S. women's skating is in good shape with the Olympics coming up next year.


Kwan answered her critics

Goebel wins first U.S. Figure Skating title

Ina and Zimmerman win second pairs title

Lang-Tchernyshev win ice dance title

U.S. Championship final standings

 Michelle Kwan lands a triple lutz, then adds a triple toe loop on her way to a first-place finish.
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RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Sarah Hughes has trouble with a triple loop but finishes in second place.
avi: 1841 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Angela Nikodinov lands graceful jumps on her way to a third-place finish.
avi: 1680 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1