Michelle Kwan rescued figure skating from its own follies Saturday. Pushing aside, at least for four minutes, thoughts of judging scandals and baffling scoring systems, Kwan soared into history by winning her fifth World Figure Skating Championship and becoming the first woman to win the title three consecutive times.
"Tonight, this week, I still don't believe it. I have no words," Kwan said after her "Aranjuez" routine was ranked first by the judges and she added two 6.0s to her collection of perfect scores.
"The energy. I've never felt such energy, but I felt so calm," she added, after tying Carol Heiss and Dick Button for the most world titles won by a U.S. skater and earning a roaring ovation from the sellout crowd of 16,116 at the MCI Center. "I enjoyed every minute of it."
The U.S. sweep envisioned when defending champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia withdrew to be with her ailing mother never materialized. Elena Sokolova of Russia finished second and Fumie Suguri of Japan took third for the second consecutive year.
Olympic champion Sarah Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., unable to overcome a messy qualifying program, battled back from a fall Saturday and finished sixth. Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel, the Grand Prix Final winner, finished fourth after stumbling through her short program Friday and falling on a flying camel spin and the takeoff of a triple toe loop Saturday.
Hughes, 17, hinted she might skip the Champions on Ice tour and leave elite skating to focus on choosing a college and enjoying her senior year of high school.
"Skating is my first true love, and I would love to go back and be able to enjoy it again and give my academic studies enough attention," said Hughes, who was slowed by an early-season leg injury and never recaptured the sharp technique and luminous spirit of a year ago.
"I don't think people were asking too much of me," she added. "I definitely did a lot more than I thought possible and I survived. I made an incredible leap in my life and I'm glad the year is over."
It took tremendous character for Sokolova to win her first medal at the world championships. That it was silver didn't disappoint the 23-year-old Muscovite, who didn't make her country's team for the Salt Lake City Games and hadn't qualified for the world championships since 1998, when she finished eighth.
"I didn't feel, myself, that I lose," said Sokolova, who did seven triples -- including two in combination -- despite torn cartilage in her left knee that will require surgery. "When you skate at such a high level, you're proud to be after her. But I hope one day it will change. That is the dream of everybody, I think."
Cohen, fourth for the second year in a row, was encouraged that she landed a triple lutz-triple toe loop. "I'm getting better with every competition, and I'll just have to work harder this summer," she said.
Kwan, who lives in Manhattan Beach, marveled at how relaxed she felt as she checked off each element in her program. Six triples -- one fewer than Sokolova -- two triple-double combinations, her trademark spiral and deft footwork brought her scores that ranged from 5.7 to 5.9 for technical merit. Her innate and unmatched musical sense brought scores of 5.8 to 6.0 for presentation.
The night belonged to her in a way the 1998 Nagano Games might have if not for a 15-year-old sprite named Tara Lipinski, a way the Salt Lake City Games belonged to Hughes.
"I just felt like I'm walking through it and able to float on air," said Kwan, who credited her coach of six months, Scott Williams for "an aura that's calming and very relaxing."
He returned the compliment: "It's been a pleasure from the beginning and very much an honor for me," said Williams, a former national competitor and pro skater. "I have so much respect for the way Michelle approaches skating and her family."
Kwan was too dazed to discuss her future and whether she'll try her Olympic luck again in 2006. It was enough to know she had won, on her own terms. Thoughts of Sonja Henie's record 10 titles had to wait.
"I just don't know when I've had enough of competing," she said. "I like competing and being in front of an audience, and I like pushing myself. Why stop when you love what you're doing?"
And when she can do it so well.
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*--* Michelle Kwan's victory in the women's competition of the World Figure Skating Championships Saturday was her fifth in 10 attempts. Her record: Year Site Rank 2003 Washington 1st 2002 Nagano, Japan 2nd 2001 Vancouver, Canada 1st 2000 Nice, France 1st 1999 Helsinki, Finland 2nd 1998 Minneapolis 1st 1997 Lausanne, Switzerland 2nd 1996 Edmonton, Canada 1st 1995 Birmingham, England 4th 1994 Chiba, Japan 8th