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Kwan song: Yet another world title

Skater breaks 'curse' on way to beating Slutskaya

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Michelle Kwan broke her odd-year curse here at the 2001 World Figure Skating Championships to claim her fourth world title, a convincing win over Russian Irina Slutskaya.

Kwan had never won a world title in an odd-numbered year before Saturday evening's inspired performance. Her three victories came in 1996, 1998 and 2000. With her fourth win, Kwan became the first woman since Kristi Yamaguchi to win back-to-back world championships, the first since Germany's Katarina Witt to win four, and became the front-runner going into the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

"Good-bye odd-year jinx, that's all I have to say," Kwan said later, pumping her fists.

From her first moments on the ice during the warm-up, Kwan displayed the steely resolve that had failed her during the season. She nailed all of her planned elements with ease, including the triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

Saturday's performance was a far cry from her magic-less Grand Prix Final a month ago, and a needed boost for Kwan.

"I sort of lost my confidence this season," she said. "I didn't believe in myself. I didn't know what I was doing, or why. During the last month, I understood.

"If you want something, there are sacrifices you have to make," Kwan said. "I know I finished second to Irina this season, but I really lost the battle to myself. I skate my best when I let myself free."

Realistically, the title was Slutskaya's to win or lose, given her technical superiority. But during her free skate Saturday, Slutskaya showed her first signs of vulnerability all season. Her program took in an improvisional feel as she tried to add elements after missing others. Though she wowed the GM Place crowd when she landed the first-ever three-jump combination by a woman in an Olympic-caliber event — a triple Salchow-double loop-double toe loop — along with a triple Lutz-triple-loop-double toe loop combination, neither was cleanly landed.

Slutskaya defended her performance, despite the second-place marks from judges.

"I skated and I did everything, so I was glad about that," she said through a translator. "The judges gave the marks. There is nothing I can do. I will continue to skate."

American Sarah Hughes skated a clean long program to win the bronze medal, ahead of 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya and fellow American Angela Nikodinov, who finished fourth and fifth.

Though visibly shaken, her face still tear-stained, Slutskaya managed some playful banter with Kwan. When asked about their growing rivalry, Slutskaya nudged Kwan and said, "What? We are like sisters!"

Both committed to continuing the fight for the world's top spot, a friendly battle that surely will heat up during their quest for Olympic gold. For Slutskaya, it will be a chance at redemption. For Kwan, a chance to put the pain of her 1998 Olympic silver medal experience behind her.

"I think I can go to Salt Lake City not expecting so much," Kwan said. "Forget about tarnished medals or tarnished whatever. All the medals I've won are at home, or in the bank. There are opportunities in front of me still."


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com