Kwan, Cohen, Hughes make Olympics

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- This one was not for the doubters. It wasn't for the audience or even the judges. Michelle Kwan's sixth national title was all about satisfying someone else.

''I needed to skate like this just for myself,'' Kwan said Saturday night after securing an Olympic berth with her fifth successive U.S. Figure Skating Championships crown. ''Not so much for the people or the critics. I know I believe in myself. Tonight, I felt this was a performance all on its own.''

And a performance featuring two perfect marks for presentation, sending a warning to her chief rivals from Russia: The chase for the Olympic gold next month will come through her.

Joining Kwan, the 1998 Olympic silver medalist, on one of America's strongest women's squads are Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes. The teen-agers edged Angela Nikodinov to earn their first Olympic berths.

''I am so excited, I can't really believe it,'' said Cohen, 17, who sat out last season with a stress fracture in her back.

''I am proud to be an Olympian, it is really amazing,'' added Hughes, 16, who finished third. ''I didn't even want to think about it. It's too much to fathom.''

Not for Kwan, the most dominant American woman in decades. No one blocks out distractions and bad vibes better than Kwan, whose season has been marked by inconsistent performances and a split with longtime coach Frank Carroll. But when the pressure is on at nationals, Kwan has become unbeatable.

''You work for so long and you hope to skate with freedom,'' she said. ''Even though you're 100 percent ready and prepared, you just don't know what to expect.

''I just felt I skated with freedom and the crowd was amazing. I haven't felt like that in a while. Just a good thing.''

Kwan's sixth U.S. title tied her for second place on the career list with Theresa Weld Blanchard, who skated in the 1920s, and Gretchen Merrill, whose last crown was in 1948. Only Maribel Vinson, with nine, has more.

Kwan, 21, also is the first woman with five consecutive American championships since Janet Lynn (1969-73).

Nothing Kwan had done this season indicated she would soar once more at nationals. She won Skate America, her first competition without Carroll, but hardly was spectacular. Then she was third at Skate Canada, the first time she was not in the top two at an event since 1996.

Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who has made a habit of beating Kwan everywhere but at the world championships -- Kwan owns four of those -- won the Grand Prix final over Kwan.

So the Los Angeles native came to nationals with much to prove. As she always seems to do, she established her brilliant credentials once more, and the two perfect marks gave her 27 in 10 years at nationals.

Although her spins weren't of the usual crispness, her jumps were right on -- she hit six -- and her footwork was lively as she picked up speed heading to the finish. At the conclusion, with the crowd in a frenzy, Kwan visibly showed the relief of coming through in the clutch yet again.

''I had this energy for the last month ... and it was ready to burst,'' Kwan said. ''Today, I let it all happen.''

The other contenders followed Kwan to the ice. First, Nikodinov, the feel-good story of the event, started strongly, then dropped out of the running with a slew of mistakes. Perhaps dealing with the sudden death of her coach in November finally caught up with Nikodinov, who began working with Carroll a month ago.

''There's been so much change in the last couple of weeks, it was hard to prepare myself,'' she said. ''I would have liked more time to get used to Frank.''

Cohen, 17, was next. Her superb short program lifted her into the Olympic race, and she secured her spot in Salt Lake City with six clean triples, two in combination. Although she showed some theatrics with her icy death at the end of her routine to ''Carmen,'' there wasn't much else in between the jumps.

Last up was Hughes, 16, recently Kwan's main challenger in the United States. An early mistake, when she did a triple salchow-single loop instead of a triple-triple combination, didn't hurt her too much, particularly when she did seven triple jumps overall.

Her program, to piano music by Ravel and Rachmaninoff, was much prettier but slower than Cohen's, and Hughes' jumps had less flow. That made the difference in second and third, but Hughes, too, was headed to Salt Lake City.

''It's amazing,'' she said. ''It has always been a dream of mine to make the Olympics.''

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