SALT LAKE CITY _ The unofficial judges, the fans at the Delta Center, cast their votes with the last notes of Michelle Kwan's musical choice, "East of Eden," still echoing through the building.
They filled the air with fervent applause, flapping American flags and a shower of flowers and stuffed animals.
Kwan picked one off the ice _ a giant stuffed mascot available across the street at the Olympic Superstore for $50 _ and skated to the "Kiss and Cry" area to await the official judges' verdict.
The first round of scores, for required elements, drew boos from the crowd and a thumbs-down from Kwan. The smile disappeared from her face, then reappeared when the second round of scores, for presentation, produced a stream of 5.9s and pushed her into first place after the short program _ and in prime position to win a gold Thursday night.
Fourteen skaters went before her. Twelve went after. None finished ahead of her.
"I felt America behind me," she said, "and that was incredible."
The night began with the United States skaters dreaming of putting themselves in position for a medals sweep. Sasha Cohen finished in third place and Sarah Hughes in fourth. Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who is 4-0 against Kwan this season, was in second place.
So now it's on to Thursday and the long program _ the portion of the competition that counts for two-thirds and, four years ago, bumped Kwan from first to second place.
In Nagano, she didn't just win the short program, she dominated it, earning first-place marks from eight of the nine judges. But in the long program, skating to "Lyra Angelica," she faltered. There were no falls. No slips. Just a clean, but lackluster performance that allowed teammate Tara Lipinski to win the gold.
Even Kwan, who has since dissected the tape of that night, admits that something wasn't quite right.
"I seemed like I was in my own world," she said. "I didn't open up and let myself go."
Kwan has taken a different approach to these Olympics. In Nagano, she tried to shield herself from attention, staying away from the Olympics during the first week. This time, she marched in Opening Ceremonies and stayed in Salt Lake City.
Still, in the first 11 days of the Olympics, Kwan managed to do the unthinkable. Stay in the background.
While the Olympic attention focused on a French judge and a Canadian pair, the 21-year-old American soloist _ no partner, no coach, lots of pressure _ quietly prepared for her role in these Games.
Then, on the 12th day, she stepped back onto center stage, taking her allotted 160 seconds on the Delta Center ice and skating a routine that put her in position to add the one thing missing from her skating resume: an Olympic gold.
There was one scare. One minute and 42 seconds into the routine, she slipped slightly. But she recovered to land the triple flip, then went into her trademark finish.
"You've just got to feel that you're fortunate already, even before you start your program," she said. "I was like, 'I'm Michelle Kwan. ... I have no regrets. Come here and enjoy yourself.' I've done this a million times."
Easier said than done. With the world watching not only the skaters but the people judging them, some of the athletes buckled under the pressure. Armenia's Julia Lebedeva, the third skater out of 27, fell on her first jump attempt.
While Hughes showed glimmers of reminders that she is only 16 _ skating a routine that was clean but at times tentative _ Cohen didn't react like a 17-year-old. She stepped onto the ice confidently, nailed her jumps and drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
"When I got on the ice, I couldn't believe it was finally here," Cohen said. "The moment I waited for my whole life."
Kwan remembers the feeling. At 21, she is a veteran. This is her third Olympics. She was an alternate in 1994 at Lillehammer and a silver medalist in Nagano.
Now she has four world championship titles, six national titles, an estimated $2 million in annual endorsements, a boyfriend who plays for the Florida Panthers (defenseman Brad Ference), an autobiography that already is in its sixth printing and a $20,000 Vera Wang outfit made for Salt Lake City.
She has it all. Almost.
She doesn't have a gold medal. Or a coach.
And there are those who say it is impossible to have one without the other.
Kwan's response: "When you look at it, it's you and the ice. No one can hold your hand."
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