WASHINGTON - Olympic figure skating champion Sarah Hughes looked all grown up in her soft, pale blue costume, and seemed to almost float to the sounds of La BayadM-hre.
She hit a triple loop without pause and then a combination triple loop-double toe and seemed on her way. But then she fell out of a triple flip, turned a triple toe into a single and, by the time she was done, had to face the fact her hopes of a gold medal were, at best, faint.
And yet, when Hughes walked out to meet the media yesterday after her qualifying round at the World Figure Skating Championships at MCI Center, she was still smiling.
"It's OK," she said. "It's one program. I'm a fighter and a strong competitor. I have two more programs. Hopefully, I'm going to do better."
At that point, she was fourth in the standings. By the time her half of qualifying was over, she had dropped to sixth. American Michelle Kwan, who seemed to thrive on her popularity and past achievements, was first; the surprising Elena Sokolova, a Russian who is re-establishing her career, turned in two triple-triple (Lutz-toe and Salchow-toe) combinations and secured second; and American Sasha Cohen, skating a clean program, was third.
Thanks to Hughes' missteps, Shizuka Arakawa of Japan and Elena Liashenko of Ukraine were able to place fourth and fifth, respectively.
In the other half of qualifying, Fumie Suguri of Japan, bronze medalist in the 2002 championships, made a number of small mistakes, but finished first.
"My goal is to make a lot of people happy," Suguri said. "I'm very sad about the war and hope it will make people happy to watch me skate. I just think about the peace of the world."
It was a familiar theme, repeated through the afternoon.
"The war, it just makes you step back and say, 'Wow,' " said Cohen. "When I go out to skate, what is the worst that can happen? I'll fall down. Meanwhile, there are men and women from all over the world risking their lives."
And said Kwan: "It's very hard for skaters to think about skating. We'd rather have peace in the world."
But it is skating that is the story here, and Kwan performed a mostly solid program. She was rewarded for her skill and presentation with the best overall scores of the day in both technical merit (5.7 to 5.8) and presentation (5.8 to 5.9), even though she stumbled during a combination and turned a double toe into a single.
"I have no complaints," said the seven-time U.S. champion, who also has four world titles in her resume. "The mistake? It was a lazy thing. It's qualifying."
Qualifying it may be, but Sokolova, who has not competed at the worlds since 1998, when she finished eighth after a seventh-place Olympic performance, was competing as if it were the finals. There was no laziness in her triple-triples, but she wasn't as well rewarded as she might have been. Her scores ranged from 5.6 to 5.9 on both technical merit and presentation.
There was no laziness in Cohen's performance, either, but she wasn't as well-rewarded as Kwan either and registered outright shock when one judge gave her a 5.1 on presentation.
"I've gotten good marks all season not skating as well as this," she said, and then shrugged. "Michelle is a very strong competitor and has been strong for a number of years."
Last night, the pairs competition concluded with a free skate that was exactly that.
China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao were the defending world champions and last night they skated like champions. They came into the final competition in second place, but after a stunningly beautiful and athletic performance to Violin Fantasy from the opera Turandot that brought the crowd roaring to its feet and was so close to perfection two judges actually scored them 6.0, the gold medal was again theirs.
Russians Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, performing a delightful jazz routine to The Cotton Club, took the silver medal, and Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov won the bronze.
NOTE: Judge Judit Furst-Tombor was withdrawn from the worlds yesterday by Hungarian National Skating Federation president Ferenc Batho. In a written statement, Batho noted Furst-Tombor is a founding member of the new World Skating Federation "and as such is acting against the ISU Constitution, which is not in line with the Hungarian National Skating Federation's policy."