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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS | ON THE ICE

U.S. Women Have Depth Well Beyond the Top Four

January 12, 2002|PAUL WYLIE

Paul Wylie, a five-time medalist at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and a silver medalist at the 1992 Olympic Games, analyzes this week's championships at Staples Center for The Times, as told to Senior Assistant Sports Editor Randy Harvey.

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I competed at the same time as Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, who finished 1-2-3 in the 1991 World Championships. They were at the head of the deepest field of U.S. female figure skaters in history.

Until now.

The richness of this year's talent pool is unprecedented because of the number of outstanding young skaters below the top three.

Ann Patrice McDonough, Jennifer Kirk, Beatrisa Liang skated beautiful and technically clean short programs Thursday. They probably will not make the U.S. team for next month's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But, with their poise and technical prowess, we might see them four years from now in Turin, Italy. One thing for sure, we can look forward to years of incredible performances from the U.S. women.

As for the Salt Lake City Games, tonight's battle in the long program for the three women's berths on the U.S. team will be fierce. That is especially true of the third berth. Look for Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes in Salt Lake City. The question is whether they will be joined by Sasha Cohen or Angela Nikodinov.

Michelle Kwan, the leader after the short program, has handled herself admirably amid controversy surrounding her decision to compete without a coach.

In a conservative sport that might not condone such an independent spirit, she made a decision that she felt was right and stuck with it. We all should respect that she pulled off her short program without any signs of emotional wear and tear. That bodes well for her long program.

My concern for her once she arrives in Salt Lake City is what kind of message she is sending by repeating her Rachmaninov short program. Although she's comfortable with her program from four years ago in Nagano, and she performs it beautifully, the judges expect something new, something decidedly "2002."

Our expectation of Kwan is the same as for a fashion house. They must come out with something fresh and innovative instead of repeating an earlier line. She's the same go-to woman she always was technically. But she needs to be on the cutting edge stylistically too.

Although Kwan is the reigning world champion, Sarah Hughes has quickly developed a following among the judging community, especially internationally. She could be a threat, not just to Kwan but also to the top Russians.

Hughes was third in the short program. But watch her tonight as she shows the strength of her long program, where she can demonstrate the consistency of her varied arsenal of triple jumps. In the past year, she also has matured artistically.

Now for Cohen and Nikodinov. One skater with incredible talent is not going to make the Olympic team.

I'm so happy to see Cohen back. Her return to contention with a second-place short program created an electricity inside Staples Center that was palpable.

No one performs a spiral with the extension that she does. She has a star quality that has to make the Russians and perhaps even Kwan very nervous.

Nikodinov, fourth after the short program, had an epiphany at last year's nationals, where she rewrote her skating career and unveiled her more balletic style. If she can recreate that magic tonight, she will make it difficult for the judges to leave her off the team.

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