Kwan leads but feels heat


SALT LAKE CITY - When her first set of scores came up last night, Michelle Kwan did the unthinkable. She frowned.

In fact, she went a step further. After getting mostly 5.4s and 5.6s for the required element of her figure skate, Kwan curled her hip, playfully looked in the judge's direction and offered a very definitive and bold thumbs-down.

Two seconds later, she probably wished she could have taken it back.

Kwan got scores of 5.9 from all nine judges for presentation, by far the highest marks of the night, vaulting her right where she wanted to be - in first place of the women's short program. Her performance was safe but flawless, and when she raised her arms at the end of her final spin, Salt Lake Ice Center shook from the applause.

"I feel really good and the audience was incredible," Kwan said. "I felt America behind me, and that was incredible."

It was the most interesting moment in a strong night of skating from all the favorites. They will vie for medals tomorrow in the free skate, which counts for two-thirds of the total points. Russian Irina Slutskaya's athletic routine, which included a perfect triple Lutz-double loop combination, was good enough to put her in second place.

"It was great," Slutskaya said. "Of course I was nervous, a little bit more because it's the Olympics. I just really love competing with skaters like Michelle."

Slutskaya, who finished fifth in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, said she's much more prepared this time around to challenge for gold. "[In Nagano] I was injured and everything was really sleepy," she said. "Here I am ready and I will fight."

American Sasha Cohen is third, easily skating one of the most impressive performances of the night, both athletically and artistically, earning several 5.8s and 5.7s.

"When I got on the ice, I couldn't believe it was finally here," said Cohen, 17. "It's the moment I've waited for my whole life. I just thought to myself, 'You have one chance; I don't want any regrets, and fight for everything.' "

Cohen doesn't quite have the reputation of Kwan and Slutskaya, who were expected to duel closely for the gold medal coming in, but Cohen showed last night that she may be a serious contender for the gold with three perfect jumps, including a triple Lutz-double toe loop. Cohen may have been at her best, however, when she elegantly bent forward and nearly touched her nose to her skate while doing the splits. When she was done, scores of stuffed animals rained down on the ice, and Cohen scooped one up and clutched it tightly as she and coach John Nicks watched her scores light up on the scoreboard.

"They were higher than I expected," Cohen said. "I'm just happy I got the marks I deserve."

American Sarah Hughes is not out of contention, either, standing fourth, although a difficult draw that forced her to skate in the first group may have hurt her chances. Hughes was perfect artistically, but her jumps were just above average, and judges are often hesitant to give high scores early in the program for routines without strong technical sides.

Most American eyes were on Kwan, however. Coming into the Olympics, she raised eyebrows when she fired both her longtime coach and choreographer, deciding to go without either in Salt Lake. She is on her own and doing fine, which is just the way she wanted it.

"As a skater, you just go out there and do your best," Kwan said. "I skated from my heart tonight, and I had fun."

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