WASHINGTON - Michelle Kwan's face was a mask of intensity. The American was skating what she later described as a career-matching best performance, and the grace of her spins and spirals and the beauty of her jumps could be said to have brought serenity to the faces in her audience.
But Kwan's face was not serene.
"It's the poker face I use when I'm playing cards with my family," she said after finishing first in the women's short program at the 2003 world championships. "It was my game face. It's important I go out there and do my best, knowing I've done it a million times in practice. And I did."
She needed her best yesterday afternoon at MCI Center because Russian Elena Sokolova brought her best and Japan's Fumi Suguri brought hers and American Sasha Cohen - except for one unexpected tumble - brought hers.
Those three finished second, third and fourth, respectively. The free skate tonight will decide who carries off the gold, silver and bronze medals.
Each woman will have her own dreams on the line. For Kwan, a fifth world championships is at stake; for Sokolova, a successful return to the world championships stage for the first time in five years; for Suguri, the opportunity to repeat or improve on her bronze-medal performance of a year ago. And, for Cohen, who was fourth in these championships last year, there is the desire to overcome a surprising fall while landing a triple-flip yesterday and to step up to the medal platform for the first time in this competition.
"I don't know what happened," said Cohen, whose performance was filled with gusto and crowd-pleasing energy. "I just fell over. I'm pretty disappointed. I haven't fallen on a triple in three years. But it's over and now I have to move on. I want to skate well. That's what I came here to do."
American Sarah Hughes, skating in her first international event since the Olympics, came here for the same thing. And she, too, brought her best, recovering mightily from a disastrous qualifying skate two days ago - though no one outside of those who saw her will know that based on the judging.
Hughes was just about perfect, but that didn't seem to matter. She was 11th after qualifying and ninth after yesterday's short program.
Her technical scores, ranging from 4.8 to 5.6, were decidedly low, and her presentation numbers, from 5.2 to 5.8, also seemed to ignore her artistry.
"I can't really look at the marks too much," Hughes said. "I'm just pleased with the way I held it together. I can always skate better. But this was at least 40 percent better than nationals [where she was second]."
Kwan's performance to Peter Gabriel's The Feelings Begin was perfect. Even a judge thought so, answering the cheering crowd's chant for a "Six!" with a 6.0 score. It is the fourth time in the world championships that Kwan has earned a 6.0, but the first since 1998.
She brushed it off.
"If they'd all been 6.0, then that would be something," she said.
As it was, Kwan was something. Sokolova acknowledged as much in the post-skate interview.
"It's a little bit difficult to skate after you, Michelle," she said, sitting beside her No. 1 rival. "Everyone is screaming and cheering. I understand they all want you to win. But I just pretended they were clapping for me. That's the joke."
Sokolova, who landed two impressive quad jumps in her qualifying skate, landed a triple lutz- triple toe combination, one of just two women to land a triple-triple yesterday. And, she charmed the crowd in her flowing costume of various blue and gold sequins as she skated to Samson and Delilah.
"Actually, this was the best skate of my life," she said. "I am just trying to do my job. But [last] summer I realized that it is not only my job, but my life. Every day I come to the rink, I not only have fun, but I have pleasure to skate."
Skating in what they said is their last competition, Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz finally won the gold medal they've chased for seven years. And this was no token going-away gift.
They outskated 2002 world champs Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh in the ice dancing competition, and even the judges had to acknowledge it.
Bourne and Kraatz were still grinning when they were introduced for the medals ceremony. The Russians weren't nearly as happy, blowing past the media after they saw the standings, a 5-4 split.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.