- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

When Michelle Kwan announced she would be using the same short program in Salt Lake City that she used in Nagano, the figure skating world was happy to have another reason to scold her. After all, the firing of coach Frank Carroll was old news.
Kwan ignored them, as usual, and skated Tuesday night to her signature Rachmaninoff number, drawing criticism for not challenging herself with a new program. Olympic medalist Paul Wylie likened it to a dress that the fashion clueless might wear four seasons too late.
But Kwan's short program turned out to be the reliable little black dress that never goes out of style, just like her. The missing coach and the old program were minor details. The real issue was Kwan's ability to get the job done when it counts.
She's sitting in first place after a night of clean skating from all top five women. Unlike the men's event, where several top contenders were out of the running early, the women weren't going to make it an easy decision for the judges.
One of two scenarios are possible tonight vintage Kwan will win gold or Nagano Kwan will win silver.
Russian rival Irina Slutskaya is in second place and ready to pounce. Neither could have asked for a better short program. Tonight's free skate will be a classic showdown of Slutskaya's technical brilliance vs. Kwan's artistic genius. Whichever doesn't execute her strength to the best of her ability will stand on the heartbreaking second step of the medals podium.
It's a lesson Kwan learned when she let up long enough for Tara Lipinski to win Olympic gold in 1998.
"Just let it all go," Kwan said. "It's not worth holding back, because I've seen what can happen."
If both skate as well as they can, be thankful you aren't a judge.
The expected Kwan-Slutskaya battle for the top is playing out as planned, but three other skaters are prepared to make a mess of things.
The biggest surprise of the short program was American Sasha Cohen, who appeared so calm one would have thought she was performing in an exhibition. The last-minute reassurance she wanted from coach John Nicks was to know if she had anything hanging out of her nose. Nicks said she looked fine, and Cohen nailed all eight requirements on the ice without hesitation.
She looked more confident than most people do walking down the street, and it earned her third place. That's remarkable for someone who has virtually no exposure with the judges she's never been to the world championships and had to skate early in the evening.
"All the nerves happen off the ice for me," Cohen said. "Once they call my name, no butterflies. I just felt this calm and I just went out there to attack."
American Sarah Hughes also skated early, but don't blame her fourth-place finish on that. She "flutzed" her triple lutz, taking off on a back inside edge instead of a back outside edge, lessening the jump's difficulty. She's been criticized for this at every event, but still hasn't fixed the problem.
A bigger problem was Hughes' expression. Her short program, skated to "Ave Maria," begins with Hughes in a thoughtful pose, which usually sets an elegant tone for the piece. Last night she looked like she was waiting to be shot, which destroyed the opening's simplistic beauty.
Since beating Slutskaya and Kwan in October's Skate Canada, the skating community has been expecting her to make an impact. The extra pressure is eating up Hughes' confidence, which used to be one of her strengths. If she can just relax tonight, the judges are ready and willing to reward her with a medal. If not, Hughes will be seconds from bursting into tears, as she was Tuesday.
Kwan can benefit from Hughes being in fourth place. Once a skater is in the top three, she only needs to beat the other two who are up there with her to win gold. Cohen is looking good for a medal, but she doesn't have the resume and recently scrapped plans to do a bonus quadruple jump. She's not a strong candidate to take it all. Hughes does have the experience to upset Kwan, but now she must rely on mistakes of those ahead of her in order to jump to the top.
After a clean, but dull short program, Russian Maria Butryskaya sits in fifth place. Not surprisingly, she refused to speak to reporters afterward and sent coach Elena Tchaikovskaya in her place to blame the judges for the outcome.
"She skated beautifully and the judges' games continue," Tchai-kovskaya said.
"Beautifully" may be going a bit too far for a skater who sometimes looks awkward and clearly lacks the polish of those who finished ahead of her.
Butryskaya has blatantly accused the judges in the past of favoring Americans. It's hard to take that complaint seriously when fellow Russian Slutskaya doesn't seem to have trouble beating the Americans. Butryskaya's problem is her own skating, which is usually solid in the short but doesn't last for an event's entirety. She will likely fall victim to nerves in the free skate and blame the judges if she doesn't medal.
Viktoria Volchkova, who had the advantage of skating late in the evening, was expected to make the top six for an exclusive American and Russian final skate group. After spinning out of the first jump on her combination, she threw in the towel and the program went to pieces. She sits out of medal contention in 12th place, while Hungary's Julia Sebestyen took sixth.
Now that Slutskaya and Kwan have beaten their countrywomen, they have to edge out each other. Kwan is still the sentimental favorite, but Slutskaya's sweet disposition is making her the skater you hate to love.
"I'm not the favorite like the American girls, but it's OK," she said in her usual broken English, which somehow makes her even more lovable. "I think they like me."
It's hard to maintain that upbeat attitude, especially in an event where the closely watched judges are taking longer than usual to record their marks. The wait for the scores was so intense Tuesday, some of the skaters looked like they were in pain.
With five women realistically competing for three medals, the intensity will only increase tonight.

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