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Kwan, Slutskaya top qualifying groups

Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2001

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Michelle Kwan fought off the distraction of a broken boot during warmups to lead a U.S. sweep of the top three spots in their qualifying group Wednesday night at the World Figure Skating Championships.

The boot heel of the three-time world winner separated at the end of her warmup, but she had five skaters slotted to go before her. When Kwan took the ice for her program nearly an hour later, she spent several minutes stroking -- even after she was introduced to the crowd.

''It's really hard because once you skate off and your balance is off, you're (wobbly),'' she said. ''It's about trust. The skates are supposed to be me, part of my body. And when it's off, you feel off-balance.''

But the five-time U.S. champion had no problems in her routine, earning nothing but 5.7s and 5.8s and hitting seven triples, including a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination that has been for much of the season.

''I sent a message to myself I could do it,'' she said of the triple-triple. ''I wanted to take this opportunity to do triple-triple; I never think of backing down.''

Right behind Kwan were Sarah Hughes and Angela Nikodinov. Russia's Maria Butyrskaya faltered and was fourth.

Russia's Irina Slutskaya, considered Kwan's prime competition, won a weak Group B. Slutskaya, a four-time European champion, took it easy, knowing that all the main contenders for the crown were in the evening's group.

Credit Canadian heroes Jamie Sale and David Pelletier with a stupendous comeback. They scrambled from third after the short program to the first Canadian pairs world title since 1993, when Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler won.

They edged two-time world winners Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia, who were second, and China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo.

''It was awesome,'' said Sale, who broke down in tears when the couple finished skating; when they saw their marks; when the Chinese skaters' marks didn't overtake theirs and they knew they had won; and when they were presented their medals.

''This is the best day of my life,'' Pelletier added of the popular victory before a boisterously partisan crowd of 16,876.

That crowd also gave a huge ovation to Hughes, who stood second to Kwan with all of the prime contenders done in the night qualifying session. Hughes hit six triples and had a strong finish that brought the fans out of their seats.

''This is my third worlds and I feel a little more experienced,'' the 15-year-old U.S. runner-up said. ''The first year, I was thinking so much that I wanted to do my best program ever in the first round. This year, I've learned how to pace myself.''

Nikodinov, also in her third worlds, had a clean performance, although her only combination jump was a double-double at the end of her routine. Still, it put her ahead of 1999 world champion Butyrskaya, prompting a shout of ''Whoo!'' from the American.

''I didn't feel ready to go all out,'' Nikodinov said. ''Of course it counts, so you have to do your best.''

Slutskaya said, ''I did what I wanted to do,'' but it wasn't all that much. She did hit five triple jumps, but cut one triple lutz to a double and did a more simple combination than usual. Slutskaya was 2 1/2 minutes into the program, worth 20 percent of the total score, before she did a spin.

Her finish was superb, however, with a series of combination spins that energized what had been a somewhat dull performance.

The judges had no trouble placing her first on all cards, ahead of another Russian, Victoria Volchkova, whose jumps were technically superior.

''It is important to place well in qualifying,'' Volchkova said. ''Otherwise, you end up scrambling later on.''

Slutskaya beat Kwan at Skate Canada and the Grand Prix finals this season, plus the 2000 Grand Prix finals. But Kwan beat her at last year's worlds, rallying in the free skate to prevent Slutskaya from winning her first world title.

''I love competing with Michelle. She's a great competitor,'' said Slutskaya, 22. ''We are competing on the ice, that's all.''



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