VANCOUVER, Canada — It's a compliment--and a curse--that Michelle Kwan is judged harshly when she is less than perfect. Such is the price of being a three-time world figure skating champion.
"The judges are very critical, and they should be. I've been at worlds eight times and they know what I can do," she said. "I always feel I'm competing against myself. I know I'm my worst enemy."
But Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who has defeated her in their two previous encounters this season, is an equally formidable adversary. A misstep by Kwan Friday on a required move in her short program, followed by Slutskaya's clean and subtly difficult routine, gave the 22-year-old Muscovite the lead after two phases of the women's championship and a chance to unseat defending champion Kwan in today's free skate.
Thrown off when her music stopped a few seconds into the tape, Slutskaya gathered herself and skated with verve and precision to "Culture," by Chris Spheeris. "I was in shock," said Slutskaya, who was ranked first by seven judges and second by two, "but I did what I wanted to do. [The short program] was like a warmup for [today]. This was important too, but whoever wins the free program wins overall."
Kwan's poignant "East of Eden" program was ranked first by two judges, second by four and third by three. She got one 5.4 (out of 6.0) and one 5.5 for the required elements. Slutskaya, who did her footwork on one foot and almost all of her spiral on one foot, was rewarded for her mastery with 5.7s and above from all the judges but one (who gave her a 5.6) for technique and presentation.
"My marks were a little low, but as long as I stay within reaching range, I'm OK," said Kwan, who didn't realize her free leg nicked the ice as she landed a triple lutz to start her combination jump. "I was a little crooked in the air on the first lutz, but I was able to hold on and complete the jump and the other required elements.
"It's not what I dreamed of doing, but it's close enough."
In a happy surprise for the large U.S. contingent at GM Place, Angela Nikodinov of San Pedro was third in the short program to stand third overall, her best placement at the world competition.
Nikodinov, ranked third in the United States, overcame the tension of skating last--and the same unnerving musical glitch Slutskaya faced. Nikodinov's graceful program to "Serenity" put her one spot ahead of Sarah Hughes, who was second at the U.S. championships.
"I was aware of how everyone else was skating. I peeked over there once in a while," said Nikodinov, who left Detroit and coach Richard Callaghan last autumn to work with Elena Tcherkasskaya at El Segundo and Lake Arrowhead.
"I just knew I had been doing this every day at home, so I had something to rely on. . . . Everyone tells me, 'You can do it.' I have to believe that myself."
Nikodinov, 20, was ninth at last year's world competition and didn't expect to win a medal here. "This year, with all the changes I made, I didn't know where I fit in," said Nikodinov, whose lovely arm movements and positions owe much to the ballet background of Tcherkasskaya. "I looked up and said, 'Where can I squeeze in?' It's just great."
Hughes' routine, to "Vocalise," lacked its usual spark and was marred by a two-foot landing on her required triple flip. She was placed eighth by one judge and sixth by three others.
"It was pretty tough, because this program is more like do or die," said Hughes, who was seventh and fifth in the last two world championships. "I sort of felt a little off, but I'm tough mentally. I really pushed it."
Viktoria Volchkova of Russia is fifth, with 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya of Russia sixth.
The skating order for the final group has Hughes, Nikodinov and Kwan preceding Slutskaya, creating some intrigue.
The triple toe loop-triple toe loop Kwan landed in the qualifying round is the only triple-triple in the women's competition, but she might need the extra technical difficulty of another triple-triple to beat Slutskaya. She has practiced a triple salchow-triple loop but stopped when her back became sore before the U.S. meet in January. However, Slutskaya hasn't landed a triple-triple since the 2000 Grand Prix Final, in which she defeated Kwan.
Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, believes she can win without improvising a second triple-triple. "I guarantee if she throws that triple salchow-triple loop in, she will not win the championship," Carroll said. "I think Michelle has to do her thing, go out there and think of the love of the sport. She has to be Michelle Kwan. She can't think of different scenarios."
Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy won the free dance and the ice dancing title, upsetting 2000 world champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France. Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh were third. U.S. champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev were ninth, and U.S. runnersup Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto were 17th.