|Saturday, January 10
Seven perfect marks in free skate
ATLANTA -- With her hands to the heavens and a huge grin on her face, Michelle Kwan sprinted down the ice, turning her footwork into a victory lap and energizing the entire arena with a jolt of electricity.
After all these years, there's still no one who does it better.
The "old lady" of figure skating gave her rivals yet another lesson in how it's done Saturday night, winning her seventh straight national title and eighth overall with a style, grace and determination that no one can match.
"I just let it fly. I was like, 'AHHHHH!'" Kwan said, laughing. "I felt the audience skate with me at the end. It was a crazy experience because you can feel the energy and the vibe."
The fans weren't the only ones mesmerized. Kwan got seven perfect 6.0s for artistry as she swept the nine-judge panel. She has 35 perfect marks in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but they still leave her speechless. When she saw the string of 6.0s, her mouth dropped open and she buried her face in coach Rafael Arutunian's shoulder.
"It's been a magical night," she said. "Skating a performance like that, it was amazing. The marks were like the cherry on top of a perfect sundae. I can't ask for more."
Well, maybe another night like this next year. Only one of the sport's greats, Maribel Vinson, has more U.S. championships, with nine. Kwan's seven-year winning streak ties Dick Button for the longest in the national championships. And she has medaled 11 straight years, breaking the record she shared with Theresa Weld Blanchard.
Kwan also owns five world championship crowns, tying Carol Heiss Jenkins for the most by an American woman.
"I don't think it's about stacking medals," Kwan said. "For me, it's about performance. I fell like I've gained experience, not titles."
Kwan won her first national title in 1996 at the tender age of 15. Eight years later, she remains the gold standard in a sport where champions come and go as quickly as the fashions of those quirky costumes.
Though short program winner Sasha Cohen left Kwan an opening after botching two jumps, Kwan didn't need it. She was more than good enough to win on her own.
Cohen was second. Jennifer Kirk was third.
At 23, Kwan put on a performance that stands up athletically to any of the mighty mites. Though she doesn't have the triple-triple combination, what she does is so superior it doesn't matter.
Her jumps were as sure and strong at the end of her four-minute program as they were in the beginning. The quickness of her jumps, their flow, their landings -- everything was so perfect it could be sold as an instructional video.
But it's her presence on the ice that's simply magical. She brought the fans to their feet with 30 seconds still left in the program, and the cheers were so loud they drowned out the finale of the music.
When Kwan finished, she threw her head and arms back, and punched her fists. Stuffed animals rained down on the ice, and her eyes filled with tears.
"Everything came together," Kwan said. "I had a blast."
For Cohen, it was another lost opportunity. She has all the makings of a superstar, with superior athletic ability and the grace and elegance of a ballerina. But her mind has never been as strong as her body, and she has a nasty habit of faltering when it matters most.
The Salt Lake City Olympics. Last year's national championships. The 2003 world championships in Washington. Each time Cohen went into the free skate with a chance to medal, if not win. And each time, she tumbled off the podium.
After winning the three Grand Prix events she entered earlier this season, she lost her last two competitions, falling six times. A coaching switch -- she left Tatiana Tarasova for Robin Wagner, Sarah Hughes' former coach -- seemed to rejuvenate Cohen, and she appeared to have a new confidence after winning the short program Thursday night.
When her "Swan Lake" music started, though, it was the same old Sasha. She didn't have anything resembling her usual fire and she appeared so cautious it was as if she was skating not to lose rather than to win.
And when you don't attack a program, it usually winds up coming after you. On her triple toe loop, a jump that's normally automatic for her, she looked as if she spun off the ice instead of jumping.
Just like a top, Cohen fell over.
"My timing was a little bit off," she said. "I felt like I went for it, but my arms went faster than my legs. It's definitely an easy jump for me, but I was pretty tired at that point. That makes it a lot tougher."
Cohen also two-footed her second triple lutz.
"It was kind of good, but not what I wanted," she said. "Every program I practiced went better than that."
Despite the glaring errors, one judge gave Cohen a 6.0 for artistry -- a gift she didn't deserve. Her other marks were more accurate, with 5.6 to 5.8 for technical merit, and mostly 5.8s for artistry.
That left the door open for Kwan, and she proceeded to kick it down.
"I only knew that Sasha had skated well," Kwan said. "When I heard she had a 6, I knew I had to give it my all."
She definitely did. Just as she always does.