Kwan in the Driver's Seat in Bid for a Seventh Title

Times staff writer

She wore plain black workout clothes and none of the theatrical makeup skaters apply with trowels. Minus costumes and cosmetics, Michelle Kwan was still unflappably elegant Friday as she practiced the routine that today could clinch her seventh U.S. championship and record-tying sixth consecutive victory.

"Not so much as a coach but as someone in the industry, it's nice to see she still has the original passion for it," said Scott Williams, who has guided her since September. "It's not lost on her, the enjoyment of skating and training. It's nice to see someone enjoy the process, not just the result."

Of course, a favorable result would be nice too.

Kwan, competing in her 12th U.S. competition, leads the women's field after a dynamic performance of her short program Thursday. Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel is second, followed by Olympic gold-medalist Sarah Hughes, still shedding the rustiness after missing most of the season because of a leg injury. Any of the three can win by prevailing in the long program, worth two-thirds of each skater's score.

Kwan hasn't finished lower than second at the U.S. Championships since 1993, when she was sixth in her first senior national event.

"She's good at challenging herself," said Williams, a former national-level skater who trained in Kwan's hometown of Torrance and remembers when she was a precocious kid. "She thrives on the challenge."

The men also finish today at the American Airlines Center. Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel, idled because of a hip injury much of the season, skated a decent but not commanding short program to take the lead ahead of Johnny Weir and Matt Savoie. Two-time champion Michael Weiss is fourth and needs help to win a berth on the U.S. team at the World Championships, to be held March 24-30 in Washington. The U.S. can send three men and three women singles competitors

Weir was the pleasant surprise of the men's event and the only skater in the top group to perform his program cleanly. But unlike Goebel, who plans to attempt a record four quadruple jumps, and Weiss, who plans two quads, Weir doesn't have a quad in his repertoire. He has almost mastered the quad salchow and is working on a quadruple flip, which would be a first. Until then, he's relying on solid technique and steady execution to be competitive.

"It seems the veterans always rule the sport," said Weir, a baby-faced 18-year-old. "I came in thinking two spots [in the top three] would go to Tim and Michael. I was basically pitting myself against Matt and Derrick Delmore for that third spot."

Delmore withdrew because of a hip injury after placing 12th in the short program, removing a potential obstacle for Weir.

"I'm a little bit nervous, a little bit excited," said Weir, who trains in Newark, Del.

Kwan was intently focused Friday, rehearsing her program without music and leaving the ice before her "Aranjuez" tape was played. Bothered recently by a minor hip injury, she plans no triple-triple combination jumps today. Among her program elements are a triple lutz-double loop combination, triple toe loop-double toe loop combination and five other triples.

Cohen plans a triple lutz-triple toe combination and triple toe-half loop-triple salchow in her Rachmaninov routine. Hughes, who landed two triple-triples at the Olympics, plans to do a difficult triple salchow-triple loop today in her "La Bayadere" routine. She landed it cleanly Friday but omitted many moves, a habit she follows the day before the finale to conserve energy. Perhaps using that same reasoning, none of the top three women talked to reporters Friday.

If Hughes doesn't win her first national title, "We're OK with that," said her coach, Robin Wagner. "Our goal is to get back into the competitive season and I think she's done that respectfully.... We've never entered competitions for placement."

Kwan enlisted choreographer Nikolai Morozov to polish her programs after her triumph in October at Skate America, her only Grand Prix event this season.

"I'm really happy with the way [the long program] has taken shape, and with her training," Williams said. "She's in fabulous shape and the program has improved immensely since Skate America. It's better balanced and a little more difficult."

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button said Kwan's short program "reaffirmed her iconic status in the sport.... It was the revitalization of herself, her character, her person, her position in skating."

Wagner said Kwan "never lost her status. Sarah is the Olympic champion, that goes without saying, but it never took away from Michelle's record."

It's the U.S. title Hughes and Cohen want to take from her today.

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