- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY Even before she skated onto the ice, the crowd was in a frenzy.
As if Michelle Kwan needs a lift.
But the flag-waving, wildly cheering audience gave her an extra push, and Kwan repaid them with a victory in last night's Olympic short program.
"I love the feeling that people are rooting for you," Kwan said after edging main rival Irina Slutskaya of Russia five judges to four. "I feel America behind me and I feel that, at this time, its patriotism is incredible."
While Kwan was cool and relaxed in leading a strong showing by the Americans, Sasha Cohen placed third and Sarah Hughes was fourth heading to Thursday night's free skate, worth two-thirds of the total score.
"I felt really calm out there," Kwan said. "I am well prepared, in good shape, healthy. You've just got to feel you are fortunate already, before the start of the program. What I have done, no regrets. Just go out and have fun."
Kwan, the 1998 silver medalist who now regrets not spending more time at the Nagano Games, has been in Salt Lake City from the outset of these Olympics. She's gone to hockey games, hung out in the athletes' village and generally enjoyed her stay.
Even when TV coverage seems to show all Michelle, all the time.
You can't get away from me," she said, laughing.
And when she took the ice for the short program, worth one-third of the total score, the four-time world champion and six-time U.S. title winner was composed and beaming.
That smile continued to light up her face after a terrific, if not perfect, performance. Although she under-rotated her triple flip, dropping her technical mark a bit, the showmanship was brilliant. At one point, she spiraled across more than half the rink, her arms extended and her face glowing with joy.
"Just let it all go," she said. "It's not worth holding back, because I've seen what can happen."
When Kwan was finished, she shouted, "Go U-S-A" as dozens of flags waved and the standing ovation swelled.
"You could just see the crowd," she said. "They were on fire tonight."
The 21-year-old Kwan picked up a stuffed animal thrown onto the ice along with hundreds of flowers and sat down to watch her marks.
A stream of nine 5.9s for artistry, always her strength, made the difference as she edged Slutskaya. But Slutskaya also had three third-place votes.
"My program is harder harder jumps, harder spins, harder steps," Slutskaya said when asked about three judges placing her behind Cohen. "Oh, well, it's sport. Judges judge."
The Russian, who landed a slightly more difficult combination, has beaten Kwan six times in their last eight meetings, but was runner-up to her at the last two world championships. In both of those events, Slutskaya won the short program, Kwan took the free skate.
Slutskaya's performance, to music by Schubert, lacked spark, but was technically sharp. Especially nice was her layback spin, and her jumps were as smooth as freshly shaved ice. She didn't show much emotion afterward at least not as much as the three Americans but Slutskaya is in prime position to add a third gold medal to the Russian collection here.
"I am happy I beat my nerves today," she said.
Hughes, at 16 the youngest of the American skaters, clasped her hands in prayer just before taking the ice. She took her time getting ready, then got off to a slow, nervous start.
"I've never had a crowd get so enthusiastic about me," said Hughes, who spent last week training in Colorado Springs. "If I started right away, it would have thrown me off a little. So I needed to refocus."
She hit every element, although her triple lutz-double loop was technically flawed and she barely held the landing of her triple flip.
But midway through the 2-minute, 40-second program, she was done with her jumps and smiling broadly, clapping and pumping her hands.
Next came Cohen, the 17-year-old Californian who missed last season with a back injury, but surged back to finish behind only Kwan at nationals. Cohen was far quicker and smoother than Hughes, and her magnificent spirals rivaled Kwan's.
"Once they called my name, no butterflies, just calm," Cohen said. "I just went out there to attack."
Practically speed skating around the rink, Cohen's energy and enthusiasm carried over to veteran coach John Nicks. After seeing Cohen's marks, Nicks held up her arm as if proclaiming her champion.
Not quite. Or, at least, not yet.
The biggest disappointment was Russian Maria Butyrskaya, who skated superbly throughout the practice sessions, but was shaky last night. Her landing was clumsy on a triple lutz in combination, and her spirals, usually a strength, were ordinary.
"She skated beautifully," coach Elena Tchaikovskaya said, "and the judges' games continue."


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