Kwan Skates In on Medical Bye

Times Staff Writer

Michelle Kwan's Olympic quest will continue at the Turin Games if she can prove to a panel of judges that she has recovered from the pulled groin muscle that prevented her from competing this week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Sasha Cohen of Corona del Mar will go to the Olympics as the U.S. champion, having won her first title on Saturday after four runner-up finishes, and 16-year-old Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, Md., will get her first Olympic experience. Emily Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., third at the U.S. competition and sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, was named an alternate.

Kwan must pass the scrutiny of Bob Horen, chairman of U.S. Figure Skating's International Committee, and four other observers during a test of her full short and long programs. The performances will take place before Jan. 27, with the site, format and date to be determined.

"I am very happy that U.S. Figure Skating approved my petition to be nominated to the Olympic team," she said. "At the same time I can empathize with how Emily must be feeling because I was in a similar situation in 1994.

"I appreciate the faith that U.S. Figure Skating has placed in me. I am confident that I will be fully ready to compete at the Olympics and look forward to representing the USA in Torino."

Kwan was designated an alternate to the 1994 Olympic team after Nancy Kerrigan was struck on the knee before the U.S. championships and couldn't vie for a berth. Kerrigan demonstrated her fitness to a panel of judges and went on to win the silver medal at Lillehammer; Kwan, then 13, didn't compete at Lillehammer.

The 25-year-old Manhattan Beach resident won a silver medal at Nagano in 1998 and bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002. She strained a hip ligament in October and was recovering from that when she pulled the groin muscle on Dec. 17. She resumed skating last Friday, when she said she performed some spirals, spins and a few jumps at East West Ice Palace in Artesia.

She said she did some triple toe loops and double jumps but no double axels, because they might aggravate her injury.

"I've never been 25. I've always had little problems here and there but nothing like this," she said when asked if she believed she can rebound quickly.

"If I don't believe I will be 100% and at my best it won't be good for me to go."

Horen said the committee convened for 45 minutes at the Savvis Center on Saturday for a "healthy discussion" before voting, 20-3, to approve Kwan's petition to be added to the team. "The committee felt that Michelle would probably have a better chance to win a medal at the Olympics" than Hughes, Horen said.

He also said Kwan had suggested the monitoring session and added that the panel was authorized to decide on the spot whether to approve her Turin nomination. The judges won't devise a score but will instead look at the range and level of her jumps. "It would not be enough" if she did double jumps or asked for more time, he said.

Cohen said that if Kwan is fit, "she's definitely one of the strongest....

"Hopefully, if everyone's in top form they made the best decision, but I also feel bad that Emily doesn't get to go because the Olympics are a great experience."

Hughes could not be reached for comment. Before the decision was announced, she said she would accept the verdict that was rendered. "I thought that just standing on the podium at nationals was such a great experience for me," she said. "I'm going to go home and train hard and whatever happens, happens.... In the end, it's really not up to me."

Any skater nominated to the team who is injured before the event begins can be replaced, with the approval of the International Olympic Committee. The women's events in Turin take place Feb. 21 and Feb. 23.

Cohen earned an automatic nomination by triumphing over her fatigue and her competitors' nerves on Saturday. However, she acknowledged that her victory would have been more meaningful if Kwan, a nine-time champion, had competed here.

"She's won so many titles in the past and I've always been second to her, but I'm definitely not complaining with the title," Cohen said.

"I always wanted a national title. I have a lot of silvers in different shoe boxes and storage units all over the place, but I think the gold one will have a special place."

Meissner, who had entranced the crowd with her "Queen of Sheba" program on Saturday and erred only when she fell on a double axel, was overjoyed to earn a ticket to Turin. "It's just amazing because I've been dreaming about this for a long time," she said.

Bebe Liang of Granada Hills, who'd launched herself into contention for an Olympic spot on Thursday with a charming short program that was ranked third -- and remained in contention when Hughes and Meissner fell in performances that preceded hers on Saturday -- took herself out with a flawed routine that included two falls. She finished fifth, with 151.43 points.

"I'm definitely a little disappointed with my long program but I had a great time here," she said. "It's the best I've ever done in the short and the long. Hopefully, next year I'll be able to put my best program out there."

Katy Taylor of Sugar Land, Texas, the same hometown as 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, moved up from seventh after the short program to finish fourth.

Of the final group of six skaters on Saturday, Cohen was the only one who didn't fall. Alissa Czisny, the early-season sensation, fell three times after having fallen twice in her short program. She finished seventh, with 149.51 points.

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