- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Irina Slutskaya has gotten the better of Michelle Kwan at just about every event except the big ones. Now they will meet in the biggest one of all, the Olympics.
Slutskaya, runner-up to Kwan at the last two world championships, otherwise has handled the six-time U.S. champion and gold medal favorite quite well.
In their eight most recent meetings, the Russian has finished in front of Kwan six times. But the American champion won her third and fourth world titles by edging Slutskaya in 2000 and 2001.
Now, Slutskaya must try to beat Kwan not to mention the other two U.S. contenders, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen on American ice. The bubbly Slutskaya isn't exactly shaking in her skate boots over that prospect.
"I don't think it matters where you skate. it matters how you skate," she said yesterday, her first day at the Olympic venue after spending nearly two weeks training 90 miles away in Logan. "I don't want to say Americans don't like me, too.
"In Russia, all the fans are cheering just for you, and this is like pressure for you. Here, I am more free."
Slutskaya is something of a free spirit, with a charming giggle and a cute way of expressing herself in English. Her publicist, Lynn Plage, has persuaded Slutskaya to use English more often in public, particularly at news conferences. Last year, in fact, Plage told Slutskaya before an interview session: "No Russian."
Slutskaya laughed at the memory.
"Always, Lynn tells me: 'No Russian, No Russian,'" she said. "I am practicing my English when I am shopping, when I am walking, when I am skating."
When she is skating her best, Slutskaya is technically superior to Kwan and most other top skaters. Her artistry also is strong, although Kwan and another Russian, 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya, have the edge in that area.
And when Slutskaya is not at her best, she really struggles. She was a weak second to Butyrskaya at the European championships last month in her worst performance in at least two years. That event came at the end of an exhaustive run that also included the Cup of Russia, Grand Prix final and Russian nationals, all of which Slutskaya won.
So Slutskaya took a one-week break, with no skating whatsoever.
"It was so hard with four competitions so close," she said. "I was too tired.
"I am ready for this competition."
And what's likely to happen at the most important competition of her career? Well, she has no idea.
"Everyone says Irina, you want to beat them, to win," she said. "It's sport. I can win, I can lose. I could say I will win, but that's not true, not right. It's sport, it's ice. It's not like a floor."
Again, she laughed. But she grew serious when asked about some inconsistent practice sessions.
"Practice can't always go up," she said. "They go up and down, up and down. And you can have mistakes in practice."


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