clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kwan near perfect in short program

She figured the whole planet was watching, so Michelle Kwan floated into her own world.

It's a world of pure beauty, sheer joy - a world where champions soar.If she stays there for one more performance, Kwan will be an Olympic gold medalist.

"Before I started, I heard people cheering and I thought, `I'm in heaven,"' Kwan said after she won tonight's short program, which is worth one-third of the total score. "People clapping, billions of people watching on TV and I'm skating. It's just me and the ice.

"When I'm on the ice, I don't think anybody can stop me."

Tara Lipinski, one of Kwan's two American rivals, couldn't stop her from finishing first with eight of the nine judges. Lipinski took second heading into Friday's free skate, while Maria Butyrskaya of Russia was third.

The third American, Nicole Bobek, skating next-to-last, fell once, stepped out of another jump and cut short a third. She cried while awaiting her marks, never looking up, as she fell far back to 17th out of 28 contestants, hopelessly out of medal contention.

Kwan, 17, skated majestically through her routine to piano music by Rachmaninoff. As she spiraled across the ice, a smile lit up her face. She'd already lit up the White Ring arena with her grace.

The jumps are almost like an afterthought with the two-time American champion. She does them so effortlessly that you only notice when she misses.

Kwan didn't miss anything.

Neither did Lipinski. The 15-year-old defending world champion looked nervous when she took the ice, but she quickly turned into a beaming ballerina. By the time she'd finished her jumps, with 45 seconds left in the program to music from the film "Anastasia," she was smiling from ear to ear.

"It was the best program I thought I've done, ever," Lipinski said. "This is the first time I felt like I wanted to cry. This is not the most happy but . . . I can't even describe the feeling.

"It's that feeling it seems so hard at the moment, and when you do it, it's like a miracle."

Miracles on ice seem commonplace for these two. Kwan won the world championship in 1996, then lost it to Lipinski last year. Same thing at nationals.

But this year, Kwan has dominated the meetings between the cordial but not particularly close rivals. She punctuated her return to the top with 15 perfect marks at the U.S. championships, including seven in the short program.

There were no 6.0s here, but a sweep of 5.9s for artistry as only the French judge had Lipinski first.

"I didn't see anyone skate," said Kwan, of Torrance, Calif., who seems fully recovered from a stress fracture in her left foot that kept her out of competition for two months last fall. "I thought, `I'm here for my own. It's an individual sport, focus on yourself. I kind of knocked some sense into myself."

And she knocked out the competition, except for Lipinski. It would be stunning if Butyrskaya or anybody else stole the gold from either of the Americans.

Bobek's performance was a disaster. She didn't complete any required jumps and left the ice clearly distressed and in tears.

Nearly all the members of the U.S. figure skating team were on hand, with five-time men's champion Todd Eldredge, Lipinski's training buddy, offering her encouragement in the warmup room before she took the ice in the 11th spot.

Lipinski had no trouble with the triple flip that plagued her at the U.S. championships. When she completed her final spin, the 15-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas, seemed about to burst with joy. Her mouth wide open, she held her head in stunned ecstasy, then turned to acknowledge the crowd.

"She looked like she was on a mission," coach Richard Callaghan said.

Mission accomplished. After being fourth in the short program at nationals and needing the free skate of her life just to assure an Olympic berth - she leaped to second overall - Lipinski now is right there in Kwan's shadow.