OAKLAND — Once she had proved she was in a class by herself Sunday in figure skating's World Championships, the only question was whether Kristi Yamaguchi was in a class with the most celebrated women's champions of the past, champions such as Sonja Henie, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming and Katarina Witt.
After becoming the first U.S. woman to defend her world championship since Fleming in 1968, adding another gold medal to the one she won in last month's Winter Olympics at Albertville, France, Yamaguchi was much too humble to address that question. She was, however, flattered to be asked.
"I've never thought of myself as a Henie or a Heiss," said Yamaguchi, 20, of Fremont, Calif. "They are legends. But it's an honor that people are talking about me and those things."
One person talking about her with that regard was her coach, Christy Ness, who said that Yamaguchi performed her four-minute freestyle program before a near-capacity crowd of more than 12,000 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena better than she did at Albertville.
"I'm impressed with the way she took command of the ice," said Ness, who coaches Yamaguchi at Edmonton, Canada. "She really stepped up and skated like a world champion. This puts her up on another rung, up among the great world champions."
Despite a fall on her most troubling jump, a triple salchow, Yamaguchi received 5.9s on a scale of 6.0 from all nine judges for artistic impression and all 5.8s or 5.9s except for one 5.7 for technical merit as she skated to the Spanish music from "Malaguena."
The only other skater who received even one 5.9, for artistic impression, was Nancy Kerrigan of Stoneham, Mass., who finished second here after winning a bronze medal in the Olympics.
But chances for a U.S. sweep of the women's medals for the second consecutive year in the World Championships disappeared when Tonya Harding-Gillooly of Portland, Ore., landed only two clean triple jumps and dropped to sixth place. She was second in the world last year.
Chen Lu, sixth in the Olympics, won China's first figure skating medal in the World Championships with her third-place finish. An occasional student of Carlo and Christa Fassi, who coached Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Jill Trenary, Chen is only 15 and appears to have Olympic gold-medal potential.
One skater in her path toward the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway, could be Yamaguchi. She said Sunday that she has not decided whether to retain her amateur eligibility or become a full-time professional.
Her agent, Kevin Albrecht, said that she might wait to decide until after the International Skating Union meets in June to discuss whether to further liberalize its eligibility rules.
"If she decides to stay in the sport, you'll see her develop tremendously as a performer," Ness said. "Take (1988 gold medalist) Brian Boitano. Wouldn't you have liked to see him here? He's improved so much since Calgary. Kristi could be the same way. She can do more."