On the American Plan

From Associated Press

Seems like we've seen this before -- perhaps in Salt Lake City a little more than a year ago.

Back then, in the 2002 Winter Olympics, Sarah Hughes' stunning free skate catapulted her from fourth place to the women's figure skating gold medal. She beat a field that included more renowned countrywoman Michelle Kwan, who was a heavy favorite at those games, and another American teenager, Sasha Cohen.

Not to mention Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who would go on to win the '02 world championship, and Japan's rising star, Fumie Suguri.

All except Slutskaya are back for the World Figure Skating Championships that begin Monday with men's qualifying and the pairs short program. What should be a scintillating women's event starts with qualifying on Wednesday.

Normally in a post-Olympic year, Olympic medalists head for the professional tours or retire altogether. So the world championship struggles to draw a top-notch field, and that has happened again in pairs and ice dance.

In the men's event, many Olympians are back, but Salt Lake City winner Alexei Yagudin, a four-time world champion, has not competed this season because of a hip injury. Fellow Russian Evgeni Plushenko is a prohibitive favorite over struggling Americans Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss and Japan's Takeshi Honda.

But the women's competition, even without Slutskaya, should be grand.

"I think the American public seemed to enjoy Salt Lake City and the level of the American ladies' skating there," says Hughes, whose season has been shortened by a leg injury. "And this will be just as entertaining. And just as fierce."

It will be particularly fierce among the three Americans. Slutskaya dropped out to deal with her mother's recovery from a kidney illness. The other Russian women are not in the class of the Americans, although Victoria Volchkova and Elena Sokolova have had their moments this season.

Suguri, who was third behind Slutskaya and Kwan at last year's worlds, skated poorly at the Grand Prix final and is being challenged in her own country by Yoshie Onda and Shizuka Arakawa.

So talk of a medals sweep by the Americans isn't preposterous. It happened in 1991 with Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and the current Americans form a stronger trio.

"We are the American team," says Hughes, who was second at January's nationals, where Kwan won her seventh U.S. crown and fifth straight. "There is a great amount of respect, we've been through a lot together. I think we are all confident in who we are and the skaters that we are."

They have not been through much together this season. Only at nationals did they face each other. While Kwan chose to take it easy and Hughes was hurt, Cohen has been the busiest skater. She won Skate Canada and Lalique Trophy before beating Slutskaya at the Grand Prix final.

"In a way I am glad they stayed," Cohen says of the formidable competition. "With all these great skaters, they're going to push me and motivate me to work harder. Because of them I'm going to be a better skater."

They all are chasing Kwan, 22, whose Olympic disappointments should not cloud her other achievements. A four-time world champion, she simply has been the most dominant figure skater of her era, and she measures up with anyone in any era.

"After I finish competing, maybe when I'm a pro or a grandmother, I'll be able to sort of look at what I did in skating," Kwan says with a laugh. "Right now, it is hard to say: 'Just one more, Michelle.' It doesn't help me get any further."

Kwan, the most decorated U.S. skater ever at worlds, has won at least silver every year since 1996. This season, the U.S. federation asked her to replace the injured Hughes at Skate America, the first significant event of the year, and Kwan won. She did not compete again until nationals, where she was brilliant.

And she hasn't competed in the two months since.

"I feel that I have competed so many years already and I am used to the whole thing," she says. "I know how things work, judging and how people are skating. I am very aware of what's going on in the skating world.

"I don't feel right now it is necessary to travel and compete as much as a few years ago. Because of the stress on the body and the mind, the focus is not there.

"For me, I am really focused on the world championships. It is good to have that time, that break.... I let myself come down from nationals and work my way back up to worlds."

The skaters are trying not to get worked up over the judging system in place for worlds. The controversial interim system set up by the International Skating Union following the Olympic judging scandal has drawn loud criticism from many factions, including the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Earlier this month, USFSA president Phyllis Howard said an "an environment of mistrust" was created by having a computer randomly and secretly selecting the judges whose scores count, with no one knowing which marks were used.

"The display of the marks has really created a problem in this country," Howard said.

Kwan hopes it is not a problem for the competitors.

"It is so difficult," she says. "Usually, you know what a judge gave you. If you have any questions, you can ask them or ask somebody what they think about your program. Now it will be just closed doors. I don't know what to think."

The ISU and local organizers have increased security for the event because of the war in Iraq, but there are no plans to postpone or cancel the event.

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