Michelle Kwan of the United States is in first place after her performance in the women's short program Tuesday night.
U.S. crowd lifts Kwan into lead
American in first place after short program; Slutskaya 2nd
SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 19 — Not even the roars and shouts of the wildly patriotic crowd could disturb the serenity within Michelle Kwan. Sure, she heard the frenzied noise even before she skated onto the ice — and found it inspiring.
SHE CAPTURED TUESDAY night’s Olympic short program as much because of her calm as her desire to win one for her country.
“I’m proud to be an American and I tried to skate from my heart, tried to make Americans proud,” Kwan said after edging Russian rival Irina Slutskaya. “It was an incredible moment for me.
“I am well prepared, in good shape, healthy. You’ve just got to feel you are fortunate already, before the start of the program. What I have done, no regrets. Just go out and have fun.”
The cool and relaxed Kwan led a strong showing by the Americans, with Sasha Cohen placing third and Sarah Hughes fourth heading into Thursday night’s free skate, worth two-thirds of the total score.
It’s amazing being part of the Olympics,” the 21-year-old Kwan said, “but actually having the Olympics in your home country is very special.”
Particularly after her 1998 experience. The silver medalist at the Nagano Games now regrets not spending more time in Japan. She has been in Salt Lake City from the beginning of these Olympics, attending hockey games, hanging out in the athletes’ village and generally enjoying her stay.
Even when TV coverage seems to show all Michelle, all the time.
“You can’t get away from me,” she said, laughing.
And when she took the ice for the short program, the four-time world champion and six-time U.S. title winner was composed and beaming.
That smile continued to light up her face after a terrific, if not perfect, performance. Although she under-rotated her triple flip, dropping her technical mark a bit, the showmanship was brilliant. At one point, she spiraled across more than half the rink, her arms extended and her face glowing with joy.
“Just let it all go,” she said. “It’s not worth holding back, because I’ve seen what can happen.”
When Kwan was finished, she shouted, “Go U-S-A” as dozens of flags waved and the standing ovation swelled. Then, she picked up a stuffed animal thrown onto the ice — along with hundreds of flowers — and sat down to watch her marks.
A stream of nine 5.9s for artistry, always her strength, made the difference as she edged Slutskaya. But Slutskaya also had three third-place votes.
“My program is harder — harder jumps, harder spins, harder steps,” Slutskaya said when asked about three judges placing her behind Cohen. “Oh, well, it’s sport. Judges judge.”
The Russian, who landed a slightly more difficult combination, has beaten Kwan six times in their last eight meetings, but was runner-up to her at the last two world championships. In those events, Slutskaya won the short program, Kwan took the free skate.
On Thursday, Kwan skates next-to-last, followed by Slutskaya.
Slutskaya’s performance, to music by Schubert, lacked spark but was technically sharp. Especially nice were her layback and combination spins, and her jumps were as smooth as freshly shaved ice.
She didn’t show much emotion afterward — at least not as much as the three Americans — but she’s in prime position to add a third gold medal to the Russian collection here.
Slutskaya didn’t feel she was at disadvantage by competing in the United States. “When I go on the ice, it doesn’t matter where I’m competing,” she said. “I think it’s much harder to skate at home.”
That might have been Hughes’ problem. At 16 the youngest of the U.S. skaters, Hughes clasped her hands in prayer just before taking the ice. She took her time getting ready, then got off to a slow, nervous start.
“I’ve never had a crowd get so enthusiastic about me,” said Hughes, who spent last week training in Colorado Springs. “If I started right away, it would have thrown me off a little. So I needed to refocus.”
She hit every element, although her triple lutz-double loop was technically flawed and she barely held the landing of her triple flip.
But midway through the 2-minute, 40-second program, she was done with her jumps and smiling broadly. When she finished, she was clapping and pumping her hands.
Next came Cohen, the 17-year-old Californian who missed last season with a back injury, but surged back to finish behind Kwan at nationals. Cohen was far quicker and smoother than Hughes, and her magnificent spirals rivaled Kwan’s.
“Once they called my name, no butterflies, just calm,” Cohen said. “I just went out there to attack.”
Practically speed skating around the rink, Cohen’s energy and enthusiasm carried over to veteran coach John Nicks. After seeing Cohen’s marks, Nicks held up her arm as if proclaiming her champion.
Not quite. Or, at least, not yet.
“She’s really at the beginning of her career, which is really scary,” Nicks said. “I think she is going to improve tremendously over the next four years.”
The biggest disappointment was Russian Maria Butyrskaya, who skated superbly throughout the practice sessions but was shaky Tuesday night. Her landing was clumsy on a triple lutz in combination, and her spirals, usually a strength, were ordinary.
“She skated beautifully,” coach Elena Tchaikovskaya said, “and the judges’ games continue.”