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Chen wins China's first skating gold


BIRMINGHAM, England -- China's first figure skating world champion trains in Beijing and Burbank, Calif., idolizes Peggy Fleming and employs an agent.

Chen Lu is very much a woman-child of the international skating world.

Yesterday, this 18-year-old from the winter sports city of Chang Chun turned The Last Emperor into ballet on ice and won the World Figure Skating Championships most valued prize -- the women's gold.

"This is not only a first for me but a first for all Chinese skaters," Chen said. "It has great significance."

So do the performances registered by Americans Nicole Bobek and Michelle Kwan.

Bobek, the leader after the technical program, finished fourth in the free skate final with two falls, but managed to hang on for the bronze behind France's Surya Bonaly.

And Kwan, 14, showed that she is skating's future, delivering seven triple jumps in a performance that moved her to tears and moved the crowd to its feet.

"I was so nervous," Kwan said. "And I was so overwhelmed. I skated so great to the end."

The performances were magnificent. And the scoring showed that skating has yet to firmly establish a new order among the women in the year after the Winter Olympics.

Chen and Bonaly each received three first-place votes from the judges. Kwan, who was third overall in the free skate, received two. And Bobek earned one.

The judges could take a pick of styles. There was Chen, the 1994 Olympic bronze medalist, balletic, not as technically proficient as the others, but packaged beautifully in a program choreographed by former Canadian champion Toller Cranston.

"For a long time, she has been third," said Chen's coach, Li Mingzhu. "We knew we needed to improve her choreography. And we did."

Bonaly was the best jumper, but she performed as if she had the weight of all France on her tiny shoulders. For the third time, she had to settle for the silver. But unlike last year, when she tossed away her prize in disgust, she received her silver with a smile and a wave.

"I just tried to skate my best and show what I can," she said.

Bobek was the natural, all speed and elegance. For 51 seconds she was terrific, landing two combination jumps, bringing the crowd along for a spin to music from Doctor Zhivago. But then she crashed, not once, but twice, missing a triple loop and a

triple salchow.

"It wasn't my best performance," she said. "I was upset I missed those two jumps. But I came here to do a good job. I proved to a lot of people that I could do that job. I'm happy."

Ultimately, Bobek gave a gritty performance, especially considering all the pressure she had faced in the last few weeks. Nearly from the moment she won the U.S. Championships, skeletons began tumbling out of her closet and her personal life became fodder for the tabloids.

"I'm still the same old Nicole -- just grown up a bit," she said.

Growing up may now be all that separates Kwan from a gold medal.

Dressed in a swirl of magenta, she floated along the ice. Others may skate faster and jump higher, others may project better to the audience, but Kwan displays surprising maturity and great potential.

"The judges are looking at her and saying, 'She's 14, is she really going to be the best free skater in the world?' " said Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll. "If she skated like that at 16, the placement might have been different."

But there is plenty of time for Kwan, and plenty of good news for the sport.

In America, the Kwan-Bobek rivalry should be fascinating.

"It's nice to have a competition so close to you in the states," Kwan said. "It will influence your training."

The U.S. performance at these championships will also influence skating in the year leading up to the 1996 Worlds in Edmonton, Alberta. With Bobek gaining the bronze in women's, Eldredge the silver in men's, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand the bronze in pairs, and Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur a top-10 finish in dance, the United States will receive added spots in each discipline.

But for now, skating's most valued prize belongs to the world's most populous country.

The Last Emperor brought China a first gold.

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