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Kwan joins Americans Button, Heiss with five world championships

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Her place among the greats of her sport secure, Michelle Kwan doesn't need to prove anything else.

Which means she'll probably blow away all the figure skating records.

''It's like this never-ending feeling,'' Kwan said Saturday night after winning her fifth World Figure Skating Championships title, tying the American record held by Dick Button and Carol Heiss. ''I think that's why people ask, 'Why is Michelle competing? Why does she keep on going?

''Because I haven't had that feeling (of) well, that is enough, I've had enough competition, I can hang my skates up.''

As the 22-year-old Kwan continues to collect titles, it seems more certain she will be around for the 2006 Olympics. After all, the one piece of gold missing is in sports' biggest arena, although she has a silver and bronze at the Olympics.

''Why stop what you love doing?'' she said. ''I'm in a great position where I have the choice. I feel relaxed, and everything is just extra for me. I don't know, I like it this way.''

Obviously.

With a smile that could light up the world and a grace unequaled in her graceful sport, Kwan soared into the record books with the kind of magnificent artistry that would match anyone who has ever laced on skates.

''I hope she wins 25 world championships,'' an elated Button said.

''This year has been enjoyable, because I have been so relaxed,'' said Kwan, who beat Russian Elena Sokolova and Japan's Fumie Suguri. ''Maybe that tells me something: That I should put less pressure on myself.

''I've had such a long, wonderful skating career, I think that anything else is extra. I kind of have to put it in that perspective. I have nothing to lose, I have nothing to prove -- just go out and skate.''

And for those who criticize her for not trying the most difficult jumps, she answered with a technical masterpiece of spins, spirals and footwork that had the crowd in ecstasy.

She appeared to be just as ecstatic, particularly toward the end of yet another brilliant free skate. With more than a minute remaining in the program, she was smiling widely. During a mesmerizing series of steps from one end of the rink to another, she looked as if she was somewhere else -- in that special place where only champions travel.

''I never felt such energy from myself and felt so calm,'' she said. ''It seemed like I walked through everything.''

Kwan, a seven-time U.S. champion, already has more world medals than any American, with eight. She has been either first or second at every world championship since 1996, winning in '96, '98, 2000, '01 and this year. No other woman has recaptured the title three times.

Kwan did six triples, two in combination, with the smoothest salchow and lutz you'll ever see. While she didn't attempt a triple-triple combination -- Sokolova and several others did them -- it hardly mattered when everything else was of such high quality.

''Tonight, this week, it's been ... I still don't believe it,'' said Kwan, who sobbed on the victory stand, then carried an American flag around the ice on a victory lap. ''It's like, 'Wow.' I have no words.''

Until her challengers -- defending champion Irina Slutskaya missed worlds to tend to her ill mother -- narrow the artistry gap, there is no one in sight who can match Kwan.

Certainly not American Sasha Cohen, who barely was edged by Suguri for third -- the difference being Suguri had an easier qualifying group than Cohen and won it. Cohen was third behind Kwan and Sokolova in qualifying, fifth in the short program and third Saturday night.

Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, skating in the next-to-last group, had a far-better performance than in qualifying. She fell once, on a triple flip, but hit five other triples. Her spins were precise and she left the ice feeling a whole lot better than a few days ago.

She was rewarded for her presentation enough to boost her to sixth.

''I definitely did a lot more than I thought was possible and I survived,'' Hughes said. ''It was an incredible week in my life. I'm definitely glad the year is over.''

Cohen had yet another difficult free skate. The most successful skater on the Grand Prix series this season, she has a habit of flopping when the national title or a medal at worlds is on the line.

Cohen fell during a flying camel spin and crashed on a triple toe loop, her easiest triple jump. Her presentation marks lifted her close to Suguri overall, but were not enough to give her third place.

''I made some mistakes, but overall I am pretty happy,'' Cohen said. ''I am disappointed in not moving up, but I accomplished two main things here: I did my first clean long program in qualifying and did my triple-triple for the first time in competition. I did some good things here.''

Sokolova, skating in her second worlds, but first since 1998, was coming off a concussion suffered when a luggage bag hit her on the head during an airplane flight. She recovered from that, beat Slutskaya to win her first national title and, in Washington, further established herself as the best of the Russians.

''Last season, I was not even in the top three in Russia,'' Sokolova said. ''Now, I will be second in the world.''



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