Tears flooded her eyes as she stood at center ice at the American Airlines Center and drank in the love of 11,000 people, wishing she could skate all night to savor the feeling.
Michelle Kwan will remember her seventh U.S. figure skating championship not merely because she's now second in the record books to Maribel Vinson Owen's nine titles, or because she became the first skater to win six consecutive U.S. titles since Gretchen Merrill from 1943-48.
She will remember it because it reaffirmed in her mind, after a second disappointing Olympic experience, that her decision to continue competing was right for her. Not because she won, but because she relished the process.
"Seven times. Lucky number seven," Kwan said after sweeping all nine judges in Saturday's free skate to retain her lead and defeat Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes in their first competition since Salt Lake City. Hughes, skating last in the final group of six, climbed from third to second, but Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel faltered and dropped from second to third. The trio will compete at the world championships in Washington in March.
"I was born July 7, and that's all I thought, that seven [titles] would be nice," Kwan added after earning a perfect 6.0 for her presentation of "Aranjuez," her 28th perfect mark in the U.S. championships. "Eight would be nice too....
"To be mentioned in the same breath, the same sentence as legends like Maribel Vinson Owen, it's really hard to believe. When I was young I really wanted to be remembered as a great skater, not for titles. I've skated for my heart."
Unlike the men, most of the top women were exceptional. Beatrisa Liang of Granada Hills landed a triple lutz-triple loop combination jump, which U.S. Figure Skating Assn. officials believe was a first for an American woman. Liang, a 14-year-old ninth grader, finished seventh. Yebin Mok of Los Angeles was sixth and Amber Corwin of Hermosa Beach, who also landed a triple-triple, was eighth.
"This season I've been doing a lot more competitions than usual and I'm gaining experience," Liang said. "At every competition I learn something."
Said Mok, who will join Liang at next month's world junior championships in the Czech Republic: "It was my first time being out there with the elite skaters, and I feel so honored to be with them. It turned out pretty good for the first time."
Hughes was the first female U.S. gold medalist to compete in the next year's national championships. She missed most of the season because of a leg injury, and she nearly missed her cue Saturday because her coach, Robin Wagner, misread a schedule and got them out of their hotel late.
Hughes put on her skates and skate guards in the arena elevator, which carried them up before it descended to ice level, and barreled down the hall to the locker room at 8:43 p.m., nine minutes before she was to take the ice. "That was part of her warmup," Wagner joked.
They needn't have worried. Hughes skated cleanly, landing five triples but omitting a planned triple-triple. Kwan did six triples, including two triple-double combinations.
"The national championships are always difficult," said Hughes, who got 5.7s and 5.8s for technical merit and mostly 5.8s and a 5.9 for her presentation of "La Bayadere."
"There was added pressure on me this time. I was coming in with a lot more notoriety. Of course, I was happy with what I did. Of course, I'm not 100%. I can do it a lot better. I always want to do better, and this was one of the rare circumstances where I couldn't do better. But I'm looking forward to working on some things."
Cohen, fourth at Salt Lake City, had good results after she left coach John Nicks for Tatiana Tarasova and credited Tarasova with bolstering her confidence and stamina. Her performance Saturday, however, didn't reflect it. She two-footed the second part of her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, stepped out of the second part of a triple-double and fell on the triple toe loop that was to begin another combination. She ranked third in the long program.
"I should have done it," said Cohen, who became too tearful to speak at a news conference. "I wish I could go out there and do it again, but I can't."
Although there's usually turnover after the Olympics, Kwan, Hughes and Cohen didn't give up the chase. "Competing is tempting, very interesting," Kwan said. "All of us are tough cookies."
And none of them crumbled.