PORTLAND, Ore. - After all these years, there's still no one who does it better than Michelle Kwan.
Kwan earned three perfect 6.0s for presentation Thursday night, giving a moving performance that won her the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and took her a step closer to history. If she wins the free skate Saturday night, she'll win her ninth U.S. title and tie the record set by Maribel Vinson Owen in the 1920s and 1930s.
Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel won the men's short program. The free skates, worth 70 percent of the final score, are Saturday night.
When Kwan saw her marks, she gasped and nudged coach Rafael Artunian. When the crowd clapped, she grinned and punched the air like a prize fighter. And indeed, she delivered a knockout punch to the rest of the field.
Sasha Cohen is second after a bland and slightly flawed performance. The closest she could come to Kwan was in the warmups, when she nearly ran into Kwan.
Warmups are a little like the public session at the neighborhood rink, with near-misses all the time. But any time Kwan has one, Cohen seems to be nearby. At the 2002 nationals, she brushed Kwan in warmups before the free skate, unnerving Kwan and forcing her to take some extra time before she started her program.
The next month, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, the two ended up in the same corner within inches of each other at a practice.
This time, Kwan was in midair, about to land a double axel. Courtesy would give Kwan the right of way - you can't change course when you're in the air - but Cohen began a jump and the two nearly collided. The crowd gasped and Cohen darted out of the way, avoiding disaster.
Too bad she couldn't do the same in her program. She put a hand down on her triple lutz, and the landing of her double axel was a little rough, too. She's lovely to watch on the ice and her spirals were impressive, particularly the skid stop where she comes almost to a complete halt as she holds her right leg above her head.
But this is a competition, not a beauty pageant, and she's going to have to do more if she hopes to beat Kwan.
At 24, Kwan is the ''old lady'' of figure skating. This is her 13th nationals as a senior, and kids who took up skating because of her are now in the junior level. But no one can match her mental toughness, and she came to nationals looking stronger and more fit than she has in years.
Wearing a terra cotta dress with a gold belt, Kwan looked every bit the ancient warrior when she took the ice. Skating to ''Spartacus,'' every one of her jumps was sure and strong, textbook perfect. As the music built, so did her power until she crossed nearly the entire sheet of ice with her trademark spirals, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd.
They gave her a standing ovation as her music stopped, and Kwan looked skyward for several seconds before she looked at the crowd with a smile.
While Kwan's finish was heartwarming, Goebel's was gutwrenching. As the crowd rose to its feet with thunderous applause, he stood in the center of the ice, looking heavenward and unable to contain his sadness and grief any longer. Tears spilled down his cheeks and his shoulders heaved with sobs.
Though he'd proved that he was back in world-class form after last year's diasastrous showing at nationals, after the sudden death of close friend Angela Nikodinov's mother, skating wasn't quite so important.
''Certainly by Saturday I'll be able to be a little bit more collected and probably won't be quite as tired at the end because I'm really emotionally drained,'' Goebel said. ''As hard as this is, I'm still here to do a job. I have the world team to make, and I have some demons to beat from last year having such a disastrous skate.
''So I'm going to take tomorrow and refocus, and I'll be back on Saturday to do my job.''
Goebel is close friends with Nikodinov, a two-time U.S. bronze medalist. The two used to train at the same rink, and when Nikodinov's beloved coach, Elena Tcherkasskaia, died of pancreatic cancer in November 2001, it was Goebel who helped pull her through it.
Now Nikodinov is facing an even greater tragedy. Her mother, Dolores, was killed Wednesday morning in a car accident as the family drove from the airport. Angela Nikodinov and her father suffered minor injuries.
''I did get a chance to speak to her today after practice, and actually she's doing OK,'' Goebel said. ''And she will be OK. She's gone through tough times before and she's got a good circle of friends that are going to help her get through this.''
Goebel has had his own problems the last year. He struggled with boot problems and the resulting injuries, and his body eventually got so out of whack he withdrew after the short program at the 2004 nationals. He seemed to be back on track early in the season, winning an invitational and finishing second to Weir at NHK Trophy.
But a freak accident at NHK - he took a horrendous fall when he walked onto the ice wearing his skate guards - caused such bad neck and shoulder problems he couldn't turn his head. He withdrew from a Grand Prix in France and was off the ice for more than three weeks.
In the midst of all this, Goebel moved cross-country. Frank Carroll, his coach of four years, had told him in November that it was time they went their separate ways, and both agreed that Goebel should work with Audrey Weisiger.
Though Goebel was surprised by Carroll's decision, it's turned out to be for the best. Always a spectacular jumper - he's not called ''The Quad King'' for nothing - he's truly become a skater.
He showed off his new edge quality by opening his Rachmaninoff program with footwork, dancing his way across the ice with a lightness and ease he's never shown. His spins are much improved, and the landings of his jumps are so smooth they seem effortless.
His only difficulty came, ironically on his quadruple toe, the opening jump of a combination. Goebel got a little far back on the landing of the quad and could only follow with a double toe, not a triple. Still, it was the only clean quad of the night.
''Considering the circumstances,'' Goebel said, ''I'm just glad I got through it.''
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