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Kwan wins another U.S. title

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LOS ANGELES ? The United States will send a powerhouse team to the Salt Lake City Olympic figure skating competition, led by the sports' leading luminary, Michelle Kwan.

With her sixth national championship win here at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday night, Michelle Kwan qualified for her second Olympic team. Also Salt Lake City-bound are the feisty Sasha Cohen and reigning World bronze medalist Sarah Hughes.

Kwan skated well within herself, bouncing back from a shaky opening triple loop to land five other triple jumps. Skating first among the final fleet of skaters, she delivered championship goods and set a high bar for the skaters who followed. Her "Scheherazade" program brought the 18,035 fans to their feet and earned the event's only two 6.0 marks.

Kwan, however, was characteristically modest.

"Just being on the (Olympic) team is an amazing feeling," she said. "I'm just going to try to represent the country well. Next month is the big one for all of us. I'm just going to try to keep my head down and try really hard.

"I don't know what it deserves," she said, when asked whether the judges' marks were on target. "I'm sure all of these ladies are deserving of winning. They work just as hard ? maybe even harder. You just hope that everyone skates well, and you come up on top."

Cohen held on to second place with a steady, conservative interpretation of Bizet's "Carmen." Sans the quad Salchow she has been trying all season, Cohen's program was still packed with seven triple jumps (with a possible touch-down on the seventh, a last-minute Salchow) ? the most landed by any skater in Saturday's competition.

"It's really exciting," Cohen said of making her first Olympic team. "It's been a dream for a long time, and it's almost like, kind of I've been training so hard that I almost a little bit expected to go. Now that it's for sure, it's so exciting."

Hughes, on the other hand, appeared uncharacteristically nervous during her free skate. Jumps that Hughes had a tendency to under-rotate seemed even more "cheated," and the program lacked typical Hughesian spunk. Her marks reflected as much: Judges awarded her third place, the final spot on the Olympic team.

After her performance, Hughes admitted she was disappointed. But, her coach Robin Wagner said she expects Hughes to use the experience as motivation in her preparation for the Games.

"I'm not disappointed," Wagner said. "She's a fighter. She's on the Olympic team, and that's what she came here to do. Of course Sarah and my desire is always to improve every year; last year she was second, so of course she's not going to be happy to be third . . . We're going to go home and work really hard, and hopefully this will give her some really great incentive."

The audience gave a kind of group hug to Angela Nikodinov, who with her fourth place finish will serve as team alternate. Nikodinov, who trains near Los Angeles, suffered a heart wrenching meltdown in the last half of her free skate, doubling each of her three planned triple jumps after she fell on a triple loop.

Still, at the crowd showered her with applause and stuffed animals, acknowledging what has been a devastating year for the 21-year-old Californian. In November, Nikodinov was stunned when she suddenly lost her beloved coach and friend, Elena Tcherkasskaia, to cancer. Nikodinov had a breakthrough year last season ? including a second-place finish at the Four Continents Championship in Salt Lake City and a fifth place showing at the World Championships, which she credited to Tcherkasskaia.

She had recently begun training with Kwan's former coach, Frank Carroll but obviously was shaken when she fell midway through her long program.

"I don't know what to say," Nikodinov said later. "I've had a lot of changes recently, adjusting to new training. It all takes time and unfortunately it had to happen this late in the season. But I always learn from my mistakes."

The Olympic Ice Dance Team

The first- and fourth-place finishers in the ice dance competition will represent the United States in Salt Lake City next month ? two teams plagued by injuries this season.

As expected, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev earned a trip to the the Olympics by winning their fourth U.S. title Saturday afternoon. Due to citizenship requirements, they will be joined by fourth-place finishers Beata Handra and Charles Sinek. The second- and third-place teams were ineligible because they included non-Americans.

Lang and Tchernyshev's program won an enthusiastic response from the Staples Center crowd, and top presentation marks ? including three perfect 6.0's ? from judges. But the scores for technical merit were as low as 5.4, a signal that the judges saw something wrong with the program. Tchernyshev said later he suspected some of their separations may exceeded the rules but that they would consult with judges to find out what needed fixing.

This is the first time the program has been put before judges this season (pro-ams and other exhibitions excluded). Tchernyshev suffered shin splints, forcing the team to withdraw from the Grand Prix series.

Still, Tchernyshev said the team never lost sight of its goal.

"I think ever since we finished last year's nationals, our mind was set for this moment," he said. "To go through the Olympic trials, and go to the Olympic Games. Every minute was focused on this moment."

Handra and Sinek have also been absent for much of the season. Knee surgery in August resulted in a blood clot to Sinek's left leg, which kept them off the ice for more than two months.

"On November 1, we got back on the ice," Handra said. "It was crazy. We really crammed. It was like cramming for finals. But it looks like we passed, because we're going to the Olympics."

Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto skated a technically strong program to earn their second silver medal at a U.S. Championship. But Belbin is a Canadian citizen, making them ineligible for the 2002 Winter Games.

The bronze medalists, Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, face a similar dilemma as Petukhov is a Russian citizen.