WASHINGTON - The skate blades glistened and the sold-out crowd at MCI Center went wild last night as American Michelle Kwan tapped and pranced and spun down the ice, delivering an electric performance to win her fifth Ladies World Figure Skating Championship.
"I heard them," Kwan said of the crowd that covered the ice with stuffed animals at the end of her performance, while standing and cheering and showing their delight. "But I had to take one thing at a time. I stayed within my body tonight. ... It just felt so amazing. So much energy. At the very end, the footwork, it was just - 'Yeah!' "
And Kwan, shaking with goose bumps, threw her fist in the air to make her point.
Only three other women have ever won as many as five World Skating titles - Herma Szabo of Austria from 1922 to 1926, Sonja Henie of Norway, who won an all-time record 10 from 1927 to 1936, and American Carol Heiss, who won five from 1956 to 1960.
No one has ever done it the way Kwan has, spreading the achievement over more years, winning in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001 and this year. That makes Kwan the first woman to reclaim the title three times.
And no one had won five titles in 43 years.
"I can't even put it into words," said Kwan, 22. "Ten years at worlds. I don't know what to say, my voice is shaking. I feel very fortunate with my career. You don't know how many more you'll have, so you can't take it for granted."
Asked is she is closer to the legendary status she has said she wanted to achieve, she paused.
"All I can think is Sonja Henie, Sonja Henie," she said. "Medals are just medals. It's the performance and the feeling and the love I feel when I'm out there in front of the crowd. The zone. Everyone talks about the zone. To me, I don't know. I'm walking through time - almost like walking on air."
Kwan's main rival before this week was 2002 World Champion Irina Slutskaya, who withdrew because her mother is ill.
But Kwan's achievement here was not diminished by her absence because Elena Sokolova, the Russian who is back on her game after a five-year absence, turned in equal performances of grace and skill. Sokolova, finished second to win silver - her first World Championship medal - but made a strong bid for the gold. Her program was nearly as perfect as Kwan's, but the judges noticed the difference in presentation, awarding Kwan two 6.0 scores and making her No. 1 on all their scorecards.
Sokolova earned one first-place score, and was anything but unhappy.
"Not bad," she said. "I'm absolutely happy. It was clean and I did the maximum of what I could do today."
Asked if she felt her scores should have been higher, she shook her blond hair.
"I never compete against someone else," she said. "I compete within me. My job is to skate. Their job is to judge. I think I did well. They think they did well. We are all happy. Last season I was not even top three in Russia. Now, I am Top 2 in the world!"
Japan's Fumie Suguri repeated as the bronze medalist, while American Sasha Cohen was fourth, after another performance in which she inexplicably fell twice - once while performing her spiral and once while simply skating.
Viktoria Volchkova was fifth and American Sarah Hughes, the Olympic champion, finished sixth.
"I feel very relaxed now that it's over," said Hughes, who fell on a triple flip. "I certainly did a lot more this year than I thought was possible - and I survived. Judging how my life has been, I have to calm a lot of things down."
Hughes is part of Friday's opening engagement of the Champions on Ice tour at the Baltimore Arena with the rest of the champions. But when she was asked to elaborate on what she might "calm down" in her life, she threw doubt on whether she will participate on the 27-stop tour.
"I was going to go on a skating tour that starts next week," she said. "But nothing was finalized before coming here, so who knows where I'll be."
A publicist for the tour said they did not believe Hughes' name would have been used in the promotion material without an agreement, but the event's promoter was unavailable to comment.
The World Championships conclude this afternoon with the "Exhibition of Champions."
NOTE: All in all, officials seemed happy with the way these championships were competed. The scoring came into question on occasion, but International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta said the judging system is going through the natural evolution seen in many sports.
The interim scoring system used here will be used again at the European Championships and the 2004 World Championships. But Cinquanta said he hopes that the ISU Council will vote to use a more precise system at next year's Grand Prix events and hopes to install the new scoring at the 2005 worlds.