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Kwan's return depends on Jan. 27 skating session

ST. LOUIS -- After the much-anticipated women's final ended Saturday night, only Sasha Cohen knew for sure that she would be going to Torino to compete in the Olympics. Kimmie Meissner, who placed second, and Emily Hughes, who was third, had to wait. And wait. And wait.

So did Michelle Kwan, who was 1,800 miles away recuperating from a pulled groin muscle, watching on TV as her rivals skated.

Ultimately, a committee of judges, officials, coaches and athletes voted 20-3 that Kwan, a nine-time champion and the sport's most recognizable face, would be named to the team -- pending a monitoring session of her short and long programs by five skating officials Jan. 27. Meissner got the good news, too.

Hughes, 16, the junior world bronze medalist, would have to be content as an alternate -- at least for now.

"I am very happy," Kwan said in a conference call with reporters covering the nationals in St. Louis. "At the same time, I know how Emily must feel because I was in the same situation in '94."

Kwan qualified for the Olympic team in Lillehammer by placing second at the 1994 nationals, but she was bumped in favor of Nancy Kerrigan, who was granted a waiver so she could return from the most infamous knee injury in skating history.

Todd Eldredge withdrew from the 1992 nationals with a back injury, but skating officials sent him to Albertville instead of third-place finisher Mark Mitchell. As luck would have it, Mitchell is now coaching and was on the committee that selected this year's team.

"It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever gone through in my life," Mitchell said earlier Saturday. "And it was a 5-4 split by the judges [at nationals]. They kept me on the ropes for weeks and it really lingered.

"You can be upset or you can go on. [If this happens], I certainly can sympathize with whoever that person may be."

"There was not a huge amount of discussion in the meeting," said one committee member who asked not to be identified. "What did take a while was that if Kwan would be named, what the [monitoring] session would be like and who would be [there]."

If Emily Hughes had skated better, would that have had an impact on the discussion?

"No, there was no comparing of scores or anything like that. It was just strictly based on the petition," the committee member said.

Kwan, 25, has competed in two Olympics, in 1998 and 2002, both times as a prohibitive favorite. She was upset by Tara Lipinski in Nagano. Four years later, in Salt Lake City, Kwan had to settle for the bronze.

On paper, there's no question that Kwan has the credentials to compete in Torino. She's dominated American skating for much of the last decade and has won five world titles. But Kwan has been injured twice in the last four months and hasn't competed in a major competition since placing fourth in the 2005 World Championships.

Kwan has said that if she does not feel healthy enough to compete, she will take herself out of the running.

Pam Gregory, who coaches Meissner, said she was pleased to hear that Kwan would not compete in the Games unless she was 100 percent. She felt that by setting a Jan. 27 deadline, Kwan was giving Hughes ample time to train should she be called upon to compete in Torino.

"That's Michelle Kwan," Gregory said. "That's why she's so respected."

"Hopefully, they made the best decision, but I also feel sad that Emily won't be able to go, because the Olympics are an amazing experience," said Cohen, who was fourth in 2002 at Salt Lake. "If she's healthy and able to compete, then she's definitely one of the strongest to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics."

Word came down about an hour after the competition that Kwan would be able to compete in her third Olympics, ending a little more than a week of speculation and controversy following her announcement that she would withdraw from nationals and petition for a spot on the team.

The programs Kwan skates during her monitoring session have to be deemed "at competition level," according to Bob Horen, who chairs the international committee.

None of the women battling for a spot on the team who actually skated Saturday night put on a flawless performance. In fact, of the last seven skaters, Cohen was the only one who didn't fall.

"I've got a lot of silvers in different shoeboxes in different storage units all over the place," said Cohen, who had been runner-up to Kwan four times, but scored 199.18 points to claim her first U.S. title. "But I think the gold one will have a special place."

Meissner rebounded from a disappointing showing in the short program to land seven triples -- including two triple-triple combinations -- but suffered an uncharacteristic fall on a double axel with 15 seconds remaining.

"I gave it everything I had," Meissner said. "My legs were kind of dead. I was just disappointed because I don't usually miss a double axel."

Hughes mustered just four triples and fell hard on a triple loop. Her older sister, Olympic gold medalist Sarah, was in the crowd watching and cheering, not knowing if Emily would make the team. Bebe Liang, who was third entering the final and the last skater in the competition, fell twice and popped out of another triple. And Alissa Czisny, who made a splash early this season, fell three times to finish seventh.

Katy Taylor, of Sugar Land, Texas, made the biggest jump in the standings, moving from seventh to fourth. She was named a second alternate to the team.

Interestingly, four years ago in Los Angeles, a 16-year-old skater named Sarah Hughes finished third at nationals. Not only did she make the team, but she triple-jumped her way to history, capturing the Olympic gold medal.

This year, Emily achieved the same feat but faced the prospect of being bumped from the Olympic team.

"I think that there is an amount of pressure because it is an Olympic year," Emily Hughes said. "This is only my second nationals, and I thought this was a great experience for me for the future."

She tried to remain diplomatic, repeatedly saying, "It's not up to me." When asked point blank if she believed she should be on the Olympic team, Hughes said, "If it were up to me ... " and then laughed and shrugged.

After the decision was announced, Alexis Copland, a spokeswoman for Emily Hughes, said, "She's totally fine. She's going to go home and she's going to keep training. She's just excited that she won a bronze medal at nationals."

Cohen was the only skater who put the decision-making into her own skates. Wearing a cream-colored dress that sparkled like gold, she mesmerized the packed crowd in the Savvis Center. Cohen drew huge applause late in her program for her exquisite positions during her spiral sequence. Her lone mistake was that she stepped out of a triple toe loop.

Cohen took bows at center ice for nearly a minute after her music ended. All the while, about a dozen young skaters scooted around the rink trying their best to collect all of the stuffed animals that were tossed on the ice.

For a woman who started the week wondering if she was going to be able to get out of bed because she was so ill with the flu, the performance was more than she could have asked for.

"I've always left nationals feeling a little disappointed," Cohen said.

This time, she said, "It wasn't perfect, but it was good."

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.