As a child, Michelle Kwan longed to leave an indelible mark on figure skating. She has sometimes done that in ways she didn't expect, including twice going to the Olympics as the favorite but finishing lower on the podium.
"For me it's not just all about history," the Torrance native said. "If I compete more and more, it's like, 'Remember me! Remember me!' "
The six-time U.S. champion skated closer to history Thursday at American Airlines Center by performing an assertive and technically polished short program that gave her the lead after the first phase of the women's competition at the U.S. championships. A victory Saturday would be a record-tying sixth in a row and her seventh overall, second only to the nine national titles won by Maribel Vinson.
Standing between Kwan and the streak recorded by Gretchen Merrill from 1943-48 are Sasha Cohen, who is second, and Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, who saved some wobbly landings to rank third
"History would be wonderful," said Kwan, who swept all nine judges with technical scores of 5.7s and 5.8s (out of 6.0) and five 5.9s for presentation of "The Feeling Begins," by Peter Gabriel. "But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen....
"I feel good. I had a lot of energy. The audience was really into it. This is my 12th nationals and I should be used to it, but I got the jitters, and that's why I love it. It's a love-hate relationship."
Cohen wobbled on the landing of the triple lutz that began her combination and two-footed the double toe loop that completed it, but her speed, spirals and innate musical sense carried her. Hughes also wasn't sharp, underrotating both parts of her triple lutz-double toe loop combination jump, but she was delighted to survive intact.
"I definitely could have done a lot better, but this is really the first time I ever performed my short program," said Hughes, who missed most of the season because of a leg injury. "My determination got me through. It's a very big relief."
Cohen was ranked second across the board. Hughes was ranked third by eight judges and fourth by one judge; the remaining third-place vote went to Jennifer Kirk, who stood fourth overall.
Yebin Mok of Los Angeles, who is coached by Kwan's former coach, Frank Carroll, was a surprising and nearly speechless fifth after a sweet and polished performance to "The Swan." Ann Patrice McDonough is sixth, just ahead of Amber Corwin of Hermosa Beach, and Beatrisa Liang of Grenada Hills. Angela Nikodinov of San Pedro was 11th after making several major mistakes.
"It's quite a leap," said Mok, 18, who trains in El Segundo. "I've been training really well and I've been preparing myself really hard. I wanted to make myself happy this time, and I skated well."
Cohen said she was immersed in her music, "Malaguena," and her performance showed it, with her characteristically supple positions and spins.
"I love this program," said Cohen, who left Laguna Niguel last summer to train in Connecticut with Tatiana Tarasova. "I feel like I'm skating it better and better every time. I'm so excited to be at nationals. It's such a tough field, but that's good. It will be a lot tougher to take home the title. My triple-triple has been going really well, and if I can pull out a clean long [program] it's possible."
But don't count out Hughes, who reworked her long program between last year's national championships and the Olympics and performed it splendidly enough to vault from fourth to first at Salt Lake City.
"The short program is always very difficult for me," Hughes said. "I think I'm stronger in the long program. I hope I do my program justice on Saturday, much more than I did tonight."
Kwan did her program justice Thursday. "Each short program is different and each one takes me on a different journey," she said. "I felt confident and powerful and had a lot of energy. It was definitely memorable for me."