Saturday, March 29, 2003

Kwan wins short program at Worlds

By Barry Wilner
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Michelle Kwan never has it easy, so she never takes it easy. That's why she wasn't surprised in the least to have yet another new challenger to her reign as the most dominant woman figure skater of her era. Kwan won Friday's short program over Elena Sokolova, a refreshing, quick-witted Russian having a breakthrough season. The margin was six judges to three, with Kwan having a clear edge in artistry, as she usually does.

But Sokolova has a repertoire that features enough triple-triple combinations to push Kwan to the limit. Not that the four-time world champion expects anything else.

"It's important I go out there and do my best and know that I've done it millions of times in practice and show it to myself, that I can do it at the right time," Kwan said. "I scout all the time. I am a competitor. It is a very natural instinct to do that. Even when I go to local rinks, I see little girls and think, `Uh-oh."'

Sokolova might be one of those "Uh-oh" challengers. Kwan has won three of the last five worlds, with both losses to Russians: Maria Butyrskaya (1999) and Irina Slutskaya (2002). Neither of them had the hops Sokolova is showing.

Sokolova, 23, hit a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination in the short program and plans to do at least two triple-triples Saturday night in the free skate, worth 50 percent of the total score. Kwan almost certainly will do just triple-doubles.

That doesn't mean the balance of power has switched to the Russian. Kwan, the seven-time national champion, should be favored to become only the third American - joining Carol Heiss and Dick Button - to win five worlds.

"The determination I felt tonight, it showed on my face, I guess," Kwan said. "I have to enjoy myself (in the free skate) and the crowd, take my time and we shall see."

We'll also see whether Sokolova can cap her turnaround for injury and underachievement with the biggest title of her career. Regardless, the bubbly Sokolova will enjoy herself.

"I am absolutely happy with my skate," she said. "It was not only the best of the season, but of my whole life."

Sokolova seemed on the fast track when she finished eighth at the Minneapolis worlds in 1998, the last time the event was in the United States. But she didn't remain as serious as a top-level skater must be, and she also made a coaching change in the interim.

Last summer, she sustained a concussion on an airplane when a luggage bag fell on her head. That made her re-evaluate everything while she sat out nearly a month.

"The accident means a lot in my life," she said, "because if it wouldn't happen with me, maybe I wouldn't understand that I can't live without skating. I am here now and I am absolutely happy life is going on."

Japan's Fumie Suguri, the bronze medalist a year ago, stood third heading into the free skate. She won a qualifying group - Kwan took the other - and in the short program, had a sensational spin combination and a very difficult flying camel spin. But she had an insecure landing on her combination, leaving plenty of room for Kwan and Sokolova.

Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, after a poor qualifying round, found some of the Salt Lake City magic. But she was just ninth overall.

"I'd say this was about 40 percent better skating," Hughes said. "I am really pleased with my skate and how I pulled it together after qualifying."

The other American, Sasha Cohen fell on her triple flip for the first time in two years, and began a spiral series too late. She wound up fourth overall, fifth in the short program.

"I was really disappointed with my skate today," said Cohen, who still is within range of her first world championships medal. "That controls where I place."

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