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YAMAGUCHI COMPLETES YEAR AT TOP WITH HER 2ND WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Kristi Yamaguchi has stamped herself the best in singles only after stamping out her promising career as a pairs skater.

Yamaguchi completed a year at the top of the singles ladder with her second consecutive world championship Sunday. In between winning the 1991 and '92 worlds, she won the U.S. championship and became the first American woman since her idol, Dorothy Hamill in 1976, to win the Olympic gold medal."Defending the title was the final step in becoming a true world champion," said Christy Ness, Yamaguchi's coach.

Yamaguchi, 20, had never won a singles championship before last year's worlds. Her biggest wins had been consecutive U.S. pairs championships with Rudy Galindo. She dropped pairs to concentrate on singles.

"That helped her tremendously. The obvious thing is that it enabled her not to be so busy," Nesse said. "The time she would have spent on pairs she spent in the weight room, which was a lot more productive.

"I don't think she would be the Olympic gold medalist or the world champion if she had continued to skate pairs. She would have been trying to do too much at the top level."

Yamaguchi did more than enough at the top level at the World Figure Skating Championships, clearly outclassing her competition Sunday despite one fall.

Yamaguchi landed her difficult triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, then landed the triple loop that she botched in Albertville. It was on her next jump, a triple salchow, several seconds later that she fell.

"It's hard to maintain your concentration when you fall, especially when the crowd goes, `Agggghhh.' But I'm used to practicing that way. If you fall, you go on."

She did go on, to the delight of a sellout crowd securely behind her. She received a standing ovation at her program's end, and the nine judges gave her 11 5.9s and nine first-place votes.

"She gave a mature performance this afternoon," Ness said. "She has improved. She took command of the ice. She skated with a great deal of maturity. She's developed a lot the last two or three years."

While Yamaguchi matched her finish of a year ago, the United States could not match its sweep of the medals. At this year's World Figure Skating Championships, Nancy Kerrigan was second, but Tonya Harding-Gillooly finished sixth.

China's Lu Chen, a 15-year-old in her second year of senior competition, finished third, winning China's first-ever medal. Laetitia Hubert of France was fourth and Josee Chouinard of Canada fifth.

Chen was the only skater among the top five not to fall, but her program lacked the sparkle of Albertville as she fell from second place after the original program.

Kerrigan, 22, fell once and had several shaky jumps in the first of the medalists' performances. She also cut a triple lutz to a single lutz, but the rest of her program was clearly more artistic with more difficult elements, lifting her past Chen.