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U.S. skaters get one final pre-Games tune-up

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One week. One chance to make four years of work worth while.

The United States Figure Skating Championships is typically a big event. But never moreso than in an Olympic year, when the results determine America's team at the Games.

This year's competition will be held Jan. 6-13 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. For Olympic medal favorites like Michelle Kwan and reigning U.S. men's champ Timothy Goebel, who are virtual shoe-ins to make the team, nationals is one last chance to put their programs before audiences and judges. That judges would keep a skater of, say, Kwan's pedigree from competing in Salt Lake City is unthinkable; she'd have to fall on her head. Literally. Twice.

Similarly, medal contenders Sarah Hughes and Todd Eldredge may feel reasonably sure that their preparation and performance will merit a place on the podium in Los Angeles and a trip to Salt Lake City.

But for others, like Angela Nikodinov and up-and-comers Jennifer Kirk and Sasha Cohen, the 2002 nationals will be a dogfight for the precious third spot on the team. These are the skaters on the fringe, who have the same Olympian aspirations but perhaps have yet to build a Kwan-like name for themselves.

This is their chance.

Kwan will headline the ladies event, along with Hughes. Though both are amiable toward and about one another, expect the competition in Los Angeles to be fierce. Hughes has beaten Kwan already this year, and certainly would love to notch another win just before the Games. Kwan had the upper hand at the ISU Grand Prix Final last month, however, finishing ahead of Hughes (but behind Olympic medal favorite Irina Slutskaya of Russia).

Nikodinov, Kirk and Cohen are expected to duke it out for the third team spot. On paper, it would seem that Nikodinov has the upper hand, with more competitions under her belt and superior results in front of international judges. But Nikodinov recently suffered a great personal loss, when she lost her beloved coach Elena Tcherkasskaia to cancer. She has since teamed with Kwan's former coach, Frank Carroll, and it will be interesting to see what he will bring to her skating.

The men's competition will feature Goebel and Eldredge, likely divvying up the top two spots. The third, however, may go to two-time national champion Michael Weiss, who is looking for a major-league come-back after two seasons of injury and inconsistency; or the very conservative Matt Savoie, who has yet to try a quad jump in competition but remains a steady presence in American skating.

Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman have a virtual lock on the top spot in the pairs event. With solid performances on the Grand Prix circuit, Ina and Zimmerman have shown marked improvement in their consistency and technical difficulty. The question of which team will accompany them to Salt Lake City looms large, though. Will it be Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, the two-time national silver medalists who have been out with injuries all season? Or will a new team step into the spotlight to claim their first Olympic experience?

Ice dancers Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev will be making their debut in major competition this season at nationals and, like Ina and Zimmerman, are a strong bet to dominate the field in L.A. The second slot likely will go to Jessica Joseph and Brandon Forsyth, a new team that still managed to finish third at nationals last year.

E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com