LOS ANGELES -- This one was for herself. Not for her parents, not for her family and certainly not for the doubters who have second-guessed her throughout every stage of her tumultuous season.
Michelle Kwan skated Saturday for the same reasons she became enchanted by the sport as a tot in Torrance: for the freedom, the beauty, the emotional release she feels nowhere but on the ice. She found what she sought-and much more.
Performing before a Staples Center crowd of 18,035 that wanted to love her and had ample reason to stand in tribute when she was done, Kwan earned two perfect 6s for the presentation of her long program and swept past a strong field to win her sixth U.S. title.
Joining her on the U.S. women's team at the Salt Lake City Winter Games are Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel, Calif., whose flirty, spirited "Carmen" long program helped her remain in second place, and Sarah Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., whose seven triples were the most among the top contenders.
Angela Nikodinov of Los Angeles, physically and emotionally depleted after losing her coach to cancer and unable to train as much as she wanted, finished fourth.
"We have an excellent team," said Frank Carroll, who coaches Nikodinov and coached Kwan for nearly 10 years, until October. "I think we'd be an excellent team with Angela, too. Our women's singles skaters are incredible."
Kwan, 21, was distracted by a minor collision with Cohen during the warmup and needed to take a sip of water and circle one end of the ice an extra time before she began her 4-minute "Sheherezade" program. Once she began, though, she was in a world of her own.
"I felt pretty amazing tonight," said Kwan, who acknowledged she would need to perform a triple-triple combination at the Olympics, a jump she reduced to a triple-double Saturday and for which she lost a few tenths of a point on her technical marks. "I skated with freedom. I haven't felt like this in a while."
Kwan, who moved her training base from El Segundo, Calif., to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., two months ago after she parted company with Carroll, will get a second chance to claim the gold medal that eluded her at Nagano in 1998. With that incentive, she was more aggressive than she has been in a generally sub-par season season, earning her 26th and 27th perfect marks in the U.S. championships and 32nd and 33rd in major international meets.
"I've had this energy the last four months or so," she said. "It was ready to burst, ready to go. Tonight, I let it all out. I just let it go, let it breathe. "I needed to skate like this just for myself. Not for my critics," she said, spreading her arms to encompass the crowd of reporters in front of her. "But I'm not bitter or anything," she added, laughing.
Nor did she feel her performance Saturday vindicated her risky choice to go it alone and without a coach.
"This skating was the freedom and the joy that's always been there," she said.
Cohen's joy on the ice was apparent. After missing last year's national championships because of a back injury and failing to land a promised quadruple jump three times this season, she had to reestablish her presence with the judges. She did that brilliantly Saturday in a performance marred only when she put her hand down on her final jump, a triple salchow. She got seven second-place votes and two third-place votes from the nine judges; Hughes got the other two second-place votes.
"I'm so excited. I can't, like, really believe it yet," said Cohen . "It's that moment you've been training for. It's one chance, four minutes, 18,000 people watching. You have that one chance."
Hughes was disappointed with her placement, which was a bit of a comedown after a spectacular season in which she defeated Kwan at Skate Canada and finished third at the Grand Prix Final. She lacked her usual luminous quality Saturday and reduced the difficulty of her planned triple-triple to a triple-single, but still received marks of 5.6 to 5.8 for technical merit and 5.5 to 5.8 for presentation.
Asked about her emotions, she replied, "Mixed," before giving way to her coach, Robin Wagner. "I'm not disappointed," Wagner said. "She's a fighter and she's on the Olympic team, and that was our goal."
When she regained her composure, Hughes recognized that making the Olympic team was the important result, not her placement.
"It was a tough week, but I felt prepared," she said. "It's amazing. It's always been a dream of mine to make the Salt Lake City Olympic team. It's fantastic."
Nikodinov, understandably upset at missing the team, said she wished she could have had more training time with Carroll to fortify her stamina. The first half of her program was a perfect blend of artistry and athleticism, but she fell apart after she fell on her planned triple loop.
She simplified two triples to doubles, and another triple to a single.
"Near the end of the program, no matter how much you believe in yourself, it's how much you're in condition," said Nikodinov, who wore the blue gemstone necklace given to her by her late coach, Elena Tcherkasskaia, who died of cancer in November.
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