BOSTON — The U.S. women's figure skating championship may be won by the last woman standing--and even Michelle Kwan, favored to win her fifth title despite a sore back, suffered a brief fall from grace Thursday.
During practice, Kwan caught her skate in a rut and slid into the boards at the FleetCenter as she prepared to take off into a triple loop, the first jump of her short program. She was mildly shaken but unhurt, and remained on the ice for the rest of the 40-minute practice.
"After a few minutes I was fine," said Kwan, the first skater in the final group for today's short program. "I was only disappointed that I didn't get to run my program to the music."
Her fall symbolized the misfortunes that have thinned the women's field here.
Injuries have taken 1999 runner-up Naomi Nari Nam of Irvine, 2000 runner-up Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel and 2000 world junior silver medalist Deanne Stellato out of contention, leaving Kwan and Sarah Hughes as the only sure bets to reach the medal stand. The top three will qualify for the World Championships in March at Vancouver, Canada.
"It's too bad when any athlete can't be here. We all worked so hard to get here," said Hughes, who made a splash this season by finishing a strong second to Kwan at Skate America in October, finishing second to 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya at Nations Cup in Germany in November and third behind Irina Slutskaya and Elena Sokolova at Cup of Russia in November. She also qualified for the Grand Prix final next month in Tokyo.
"I'm glad I'm still healthy," she added.
Hughes, 15, was third at last year's U.S. competition and fourth in 1999. But this is the first time she has been in the spotlight, which she pronounced "cool."
A sophomore at Great Neck [N.Y.] High--although she hasn't been there much lately--Hughes felt overshadowed by Nam and Cohen at the last two U.S. championships. There's no way Hughes will be overlooked this time: she's the only skater with the remotest chance of defeating Kwan, her idol.
Can she beat Kwan here?
"You never know," Hughes said. "I feel if I skate my best, I can win. That's what I'm here for. I'll just skate and try to make up the judges' minds.
"Michelle is skating very well. Even to come in second to her would be a step up for me and there's no shame in coming in second to Michelle."
Said her coach, Robin Wagner: "This year has been so important because she really established herself as a skater who has competed consistently, so the international judges are looking at her as a more viable competitor."
Kwan, 20, went back to an old program skated to "East of Eden" for her short program. Because of lingering soreness in her back, she will do a triple loop-triple loop combination instead of a more difficult triple salchow-triple loop.