With every sweep of her arm, every stroke of her blades to the pulsating rhythms of Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins," Michelle Kwan seized the moment and swayed a judging panel that had valued technical mastery over artistry.
Now, the countdown begins to Kwan's fifth coronation as the world figure skating champion.
The Torrance native, competing in only her third major event this season, performed an assertive and polished short program Friday to take the lead in the women's competition with only today's free skate remaining. Kwan, 22, easily won the hearts of the 9,231 fans at the MCI Center and earned first-place votes from six of nine judges, putting her a four-minute program away from joining Carol Heiss as the only U.S. skaters to have won five world titles.
Only two other women have won five or more world titles: Sonja Henie of Norway, who won 10, and Herma Jaross-Szabo, who won five for Austria in the 1920s.
"I just had a lot of fun out there," Kwan said after getting a perfect 6.0 among her presentation scores, her fourth at the World Championships and first since the 1998 competition. "It's important that I go out there and do my best and know I've done it millions of times in practice and show myself I can do it at the right time."
Timing is everything -- and Sasha Cohen's timing was off on a triple flip. The resulting fall put her behind Kwan, Elena Sokolova of Russia and Fumie Suguri of Japan and tied for fourth with Viktoria Volchkova of Russia. Carolina Kostner of Italy, a 16-year-old who's aiming for the 2006 Turin Olympics in her homeland, moved up from 17th to sixth on the strength of a difficult triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.
"I haven't fallen on the flip in competition in two years," said Cohen, who has yet to emerge from a competition with uniformly clean performances. "I've done mainly clean short [programs] this season. Skating is up and down and you have good and bad performances, and hopefully I'll have a good one [today]."
Cohen's medal chances are faint, but Sarah Hughes' chances are gone.
The Olympic champion moved up two places from her shaky showing in the qualifying round and stands ninth. She found solace in a relatively smooth routine to a Rachmaninov sonata, marred only by her faulty takeoff on a lutz jump that began her required combination. Because she took off from the back inside edge, it became a flip, and because she later did another flip she was penalized for the repeat.
Hughes, 17, has endured a trying year since her victory at Salt Lake City. Being held to higher standards and facing more scrutiny are difficult enough, but she also had a torn muscle behind her leg and a growth spurt. Add the emotional hurdles of being a high school senior and facing a decision about college, and she has had more than her share of distractions.
"I didn't really look at the marks too much. I'm just really pleased with my skate," said Hughes, whose marks ranged from 4.8 to 5.6 for required elements and 5.2 to 5.8 for presentation. "The only time I've done this program was at the U.S. nationals, and this was 40% better."
Sokolova, continuing a remarkable comeback from a slump and a concussion she suffered last summer when a bag fell out of an overhead bin on a plane and hit her in the head, skated after Kwan and last in the 30-woman field. Her program was more difficult than Kwan's, featuring a triple lutz-triple toe loop and a remarkably high double axel, but she was ecstatic about being second and getting marks ranging from 5.6 to 5.9 for required elements and 5.6 to 5.9 for presentation.
"It's not only the best skating of my season, but the best of my career," said Sokolova, who defeated 2002 world champion Irina Slutskaya at this season's Russian championships. "We skate for not only ourselves but our country, our parents, our coach, everybody who helps you. I need to trust in myself. I never think I can just leave this figure skating sport. This summer, I understand it is not just my job, it's my life."
Kwan's life can take a historic turn tonight. "I just have to enjoy myself and the crowd and take my turn," she said, repelling thoughts of tying Heiss. "We shall see."
Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz of Canada made their farewell performance memorable by rallying to win the ice dance title over Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh of Russia. The Canadians, who lost a medal at Salt Lake City because of a late stumble, won the free dance by a 5-4 margin to take their first world championship. Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski of Bulgaria were third, their country's first medal at the World Championships.
Said Bourne, who teamed with Kraatz to win four world bronze medals and one silver in nine previous appearances: "I need to be pinched, it's so hard to believe. We're so glad we stayed and did this year."
Averbukh called the result "a political decision. It was like a reward for a long career."
Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto of the U.S. were seventh and U.S. champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev were eighth.