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Monday, March 19
Search begins for the next Lipinski


VANCOUVER, Canada - - It has been four years since a diminutive 14-year-old named Tara Lipinski took the world championships by storm, becoming the youngest women's winner in figure skating history.

Less than 12 months later, the American won Olympic gold and skated off into the sunset.

Tara Lipinski
Tara Lipinski won the Ladies World Figure Skating Championship at the record-setting age of 14.
Since then, there have been no Lipinski-like surprises at the world figure skating championships. Instead, the podium has been dominated by the veterans of the game -- Michelle Kwan, Maria Butyrskaya and Irina Slutskaya.

As the sport's elite athletes assembled for the pre-Olympic world championships in Vancouver beginning on Monday, figure skating watchers were waiting to see if another Lipinski was in their midst, poised to make a leap into the global spotlight.

Among the more than 40 women on the 2001 championships roster perhaps two -- Sarah Hughes of the United States and Fumie Suguri of Japan -- have the talent to surprise the favourites.

Both young women are considered legitimate top-five contenders but neither is touted as a gold medal threat to reigning world champion Kwan, 1999 world champion Butyrskaya or her red-hot team mate Slutskaya.

Yet the same trio were considered the frontrunners in 1997, with Kwan as the defending champion, when Lipinski snagged the top prize.

Anything possible
"Anything is possible. The young woman who goes out there not just saying it's possible but feeling it in her heart, believing it, has the greatest chance," said Canada's renowned choreographer Lori Nichol, who has worked with Kwan, Suguri and Canada's eighth-ranked Jennifer Robinson for several years.

"(Hughes) is certainly one to watch. She is determined, consistent. I wouldn't discount Fumie, I wouldn't discount Jennifer. These girls have a great deal of courage," said Nichol.

Hughes, 15, who took silver behind Kwan at the recent U.S. Nationals, ranked fifth at last year's worlds in Nice, and an impressive seventh in her 1999 debut.

Injuries made this a difficult season for Sarah Hughes, but winning a World Championship will prove to be her best medicine.
"Since this is my third worlds I have a better sense of what's going on. In that sense, I'm more experienced but I've just been working very hard and I feel really good about my skating right now," Hughes said this week.

Suguri, 20, plagued for years by stress fractures in her ankles, did not compete at the 2000 worlds and ranked 20th with disastrous performances in 1999.

Podium finishes
This season, both she and Hughes stood on the podium at ISU Grand Prix events, with Hughes finishing second to Kwan at Skate America and to Butyrskaya in Germany. At the final, Hughes outskated the Russian and finished third.

Suguri happily took the bronze behind Kwan and Slutskaya at Skate Canada. In February, she claimed her first international gold medal at the Four Continents Championship in the 2002 Olympic venue in Salt Lake City.

"Kwan, Slutskaya, Butyrskaya have the experience. The new ones, like Fumie, they have to realise there is no pressure and skate like the wind and let the judges do their job," said Nichol.

"It's just a matter of them finding their own wings. Who knows what day that's going to come?"

Hughes's forte is her ability to execute triple-triple jump combinations, putting her on a par with Slutskaya and slightly ahead of Kwan in the technical department.

This season, she and Slutskaya also share the same long programme music -- Don Quixote. The dramatic orchestration has helped Hughes to make significant strides on the presentation side, upping her stock as a top-flight contender.

"My main goal is when I come off the ice I want to feel really good about my performance. The rest is in the judges' hands," said Hughes who begins competition on Wednesday.

Her coach, Robin Wagner, said: "I know Sarah has great potential but we try to take one thing at a time.

"I want to be able to add a few more triple-triples to her arsenal, continue to work on her speed and power," Wagner added.

The graceful yet powerful Suguri is coached by Nobuo Sato, father of 1994 world champion Yuka Sato.

Nichol describes Suguri as the hardest worker she has ever met, despite her chronic ankle problems.

"Fumie has a very powerful mind. She is a very determined young woman," she said.

Last year, Suguri decided to delay surgery on her feet and the post-operative six-month recovery period until after the 2002 Olympics.

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