From her position atop the standings after the qualifying round at the World Figure Skating Championships, Michelle Kwan was relaxed enough to joke about her lone misstep Wednesday, a stumble on the end of a combination jump.
"I was like, 'What was up?' " she said, smiling.
She was up, in the emotional sense. As was Sasha Cohen, in third place after a vibrant performance that included three combination jumps. "I've been thinking about [doing] that clean long program, and I did it," she said, beaming despite getting an incongruously low 5.1 among her presentation scores.
But Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes had to force her smile after a flat performance at the MCI Center left her sixth in her group, probably too far back for even her trademark feistiness to carry her to a medal.
"It's OK. It's one program. Hopefully, I'll have two more," Hughes said after falling on a triple flip, reducing two planned triple jumps to singles and omitting her combination jump. "I felt a little tight. My body was tired. I didn't have a lot of competitions this season.... It seems like there's always excuses. But I'm a strong competitor and I have a strong mind."
A quirk in the seeding procedure put Kwan, a seven-time U.S. champion and four-time world champion, in the same group as Cohen and Hughes for the qualifying round, which is worth 20% of the score. Combining the group standings, Kwan and Group B winner Fumie Suguri of Japan are tied for first entering today's short program; runners-up Elena Sokolova of Russia and Jennifer Robinson of Canada are tied for third, and Cohen shares fifth with Viktoria Volchkova of Russia.
Technically, Hughes is tied for 11th, which ends hope of a U.S. medal sweep.
"We're not going to overanalyze this," said her coach, Robin Wagner. "We've got to keep her focus.
"It looks like she lost her footing a little bit, and when you're tired that's what happens. To overanalyze it at this point is not going to bring back this program."
Or bring back the magic she conjured at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Of course, that was before she had to face the expectations that accompany a gold medal, or adjust to changes in her body -- she has grown about an inch, to 5-5 1/2 in the past year -- or face changes in her life as she chooses a college.
"Things have been like this," Hughes said, holding her hand palm-down and parallel to the floor, "and usually I like to go like this and reach up," she said, inclining her fingers slightly upward. "I'm looking forward to the short and long. I think I have something inside me that will push me."
Kwan, 22, never seems to lack motivation. Although her body still was on Pacific time and she felt as if she had skated at 8:30 a.m., not 11:30, her performance to "Aranjuez" was confident and spirited. She was rewarded with 5.7s and 5.8s for technical merit and 5.8s and 5.9s for presentation, as well as a standing ovation.
"It just felt like another competition," she said. "I felt really good today. In the warmup I felt solid and like I was getting more and more sharp."
Cohen almost lost her footing at one point and nearly fell into the camera well before she regained her composure. Her technical marks ranged from 5.5 to 5.9 and her presentation scores included a puzzling 5.1 but otherwise ranged from 5.7 to 5.9. Under the current system, judges aren't identified or linked to their marks, and Cohen acknowledged she'd like an explanation.
"I've gotten higher marks for skating it not as well as I did this time," she said. "I'd be curious [to know]. But it's more that I was happy with the program."
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China won their second pairs title in a row, earning an ovation from the crowd of 8,078 for a spectacular program highlighted by soaring throws and stunning unison. The Olympic bronze medalists, who considered withdrawing after she injured her right ankle in practice before their short program, earned two perfect 6.0s on each set of marks.
Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin of Russia, who train in Bensenville, Ill., were second, ahead of compatriots Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov.
"I appreciate my partner's performance," Zhao said. "If we can make our two gold medals a different size, I want to make mine smaller and give a bigger one to her."
Said Marinin: "We skated good today but the Chinese pair was better."
Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn were the top U.S. pairs, moving from 13th to ninth. Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of Santa Monica climbed from 11th to 10th, but Kathryn Orscher and Garrett Lucash were 16th. The placements of the top two pairs ensured U.S. pairs will have two berths at next year's World Championships.
"I was stiff and I wasn't myself during the warmup," Inoue said. "When they put our music on I wanted to let it go and have a good time."