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Tough Crowd

Top Four in Women's Field Are as Good as It Gets, but Only Three Can Go to Olympics


Four women, four memorable short programs, four potential Olympic medalists.

Three spots on the U.S. figure skating team at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Someone's dreams will be shattered tonight at Staples Center after the women's free skate, the final event of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Defending champion Michelle Kwan, seeking her fifth consecutive title and sixth overall, was the leader after the first phase of the competition. However, 17-year-old Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel pressed her with a graceful, animated performance and was a strong second. Sarah Hughes was third, faulted by the judges for her jump technique, but her victory over Kwan and Russia's Irina Slutskaya two months ago at Skate Canada was proof she ranks among the world's best.

Angela Nikodinov of San Pedro was fourth after Thursday's short program, bravely maintaining her composure while mourning the death in November of her beloved coach, Elena Tcherkasskaia. Grateful for the sentimental support she received Thursday, she hopes to honor Tcherkasskaia's memory tonight in her "Giselle" program by fulfilling the enormous potential the Russian-born coach had only begun to extract.

The four-minute free program is worth two-thirds of the final score. Any of the top three can win the championship by being ranked first tonight.

"Olympic team or no Olympic team, I just want to go out and skate my best," Nikodinov said Friday after practicing at Staples Center. "[Thursday] was a special performance. I didn't want to give myself extra pressure and say I have to skate well, but I knew Michelle and Sarah had skated cleanly ahead of me. I told myself to let it go, and I didn't give in ...

"I did pull it out, and I didn't let anybody down. It doesn't matter where I place, as long as I know I gave 100%."

Hughes said her long program, to excerpts of "Daphnis et Chloe" and Rachmaninov, allows her more opportunity to display her versatility than her "Ave Maria" short program because it's longer and more challenging.

"It's not cut-and-paste. I can show off more of my strengths," Hughes said. "I don't think you can ever be conservative, and my program is not conservative. It has all of my most difficult elements in it. I have to. The ladies' [event] is a difficult competition."

All four women practiced Friday morning at Staples, and all but Hughes also skated Friday afternoon at HealthSouth Training Center in El Segundo. Hughes' coach, Robin Wagner, said they skipped the second session to spare her the need to adjust to different ice conditions and rink temperatures. Only Kwan didn't speak to reporters.

Cohen, who will skate to Bizet's "Carmen," got into character by wearing red at both workouts Friday. Like the other three prime contenders, she appeared calm and confident, and said she wasn't nervous about being in such a prominent position.

"I don't think it adds to the pressure, because it puts me in good position to make the Olympic team," said Cohen, who burst onto the scene at the 2000 national championships by finishing second to Kwan but missed last year's competition because of a fractured vertebra.

"I've been doing clean run-throughs at home [in Aliso Viejo], and I want to just go out there and do what I've been doing every day....

"I really would like to go to the Olympics, but I know I need to do a great long [program]."

Cohen won't make a fourth attempt at becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump, wisely avoiding unnecessary risks with so much at stake. That's a rare victory for her coach and sometime sparring partner, John Nicks, who often butts heads with the strong-willed teenager.

Nicks said he wasn't surprised to see Cohen place ahead of Hughes, who had better results in Grand Prix events, or Nikodinov. "The last three or four weeks, in particular, Sasha has trained quite well," Nicks said. "She seems to understand more the word 'consistency.'

"She has put herself in a very good position, but as you know, you can't win the competition in the short program, but you can lose it. She did not lose it."

Kwan's "Sheherezade" program includes one triple-triple combination jump and five other triples. She had some difficulty Friday landing her triple loop, a jump that has given her problems in the past, but she earned warm ovations from the several hundred fans scattered in the seats at Staples Center and the hundreds more huddled in the bleachers at HealthSouth later in the day.

The 21-year-old Torrance native will skate first among the last six skaters, followed by Nikodinov, Cohen, Hughes, Ann Patrice McDonough--who was fifth after the short program--and Jennifer Kirk, who was sixth.

A victory tonight would elevate Kwan to an even loftier place in the figure skating record books: A sixth title would tie her for second with Theresa Weld Blanchard and Gretchen Merrill, behind only the nine won by Maribel Vinson.

"Whoever makes it, the U.S. is going to have a wonderful Olympic team," Nicks said.

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