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Kwan tops impressive short program

By JOHN ROMANO and Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 11, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Say this for figure skating in 2001: It's over.

It was the year that wasn't for American women on ice. Michelle Kwan fired her coach, Angela Nikodinov buried her coach and Sasha Cohen spent a good portion of the year rehabilitating her back.

It was not the most promising precursor heading into this week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which doubles as the Olympic trials.

Yet all was forgotten Thursday when Kwan and Co. turned in one of the strongest short program sessions ever at the nationals.

"In my memory, this is the most exciting group of short programs, even going back to World Championships," said Robin Wagner, coach of Sarah Hughes. "The field was deep, the girls were strong. And they weren't just good because their technical elements were done well. Everybody really skated out there with their hearts."

Kwan, who has been sluggish in recent months, is in first place after the short program, followed by Cohen, Hughes and Nikodinov. The short program counts one-third toward the final standings with Saturday's free skate completing the scoring. The top three finishers advance to the Olympics.

Cohen, 17, was the biggest surprise in the group with a performance one of the judges deemed more impressive than Kwan's.

A runner-up to Kwan at the 2000 nationals, Cohen missed this event last year with inflammation in her lower back.

She was out for about three months and did not get back to 100 percent until the middle of the summer.

"I looked at it like I had a year to do a lot of improvement," Cohen said. "I tried to make use of every minute of every session. I didn't get upset when I made mistake. I tried to learn from every mistake."

Cohen has been working to become the first woman to complete a quadruple jump in competition but is not likely to attempt it Saturday because it would be a risky move for someone on the verge of making the Olympic team.

JUST IMAGINE WHEN SHE'S 30: An 11th-grade honors student in Great Neck, N.Y., Hughes could make an interesting choice for a book report: her unauthorized biography.

It was brought to her attention recently that a book Sarah Hughes, Skating to the Stars was being sold online. The book was written based mostly on previously published interviews. Hughes said she couldn't imagine it would be interesting.

"I'm only 16," Hughes said. "I haven't lived that long."

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev did not compete this season before arriving in Los Angeles, but the pair is leading the Championship Dance event heading into Saturday's free skate.

Tchernyshev was sidelined with shin splints the past few months, forcing the team to withdraw from Grand Prix events. If the duo wins here they will be the first U.S. team to win four consecutive titles since Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert won five straight in 1981-85.

More Olympics

BOXING: The Amateur International Boxing Association has rescinded a December 6 announcement that new weight categories were to be instituted for all international competitions. The restructuring would have eliminated the super heavyweight division.

DRIVING: Michael Waltrip has learned a few things about driving in his 17 seasons on the NASCAR circuit. On Saturday, he'll become a teacher. The 2001 Daytona 500 champion will serve as the celebrity trainer for 300 volunteers who drive athletes and coaches to and from venues. He will instruct the drivers on safety issues such as driving around icy curves, the importance of maintaining a safe distance between vehicles and what to do if the car skids. Then he will navigate a vehicle through a slalom course set up next to the ski jump venue. "I've driven just about every type of course imaginable, from super speedways to short tracks to road courses," he said. "But never anything like this."

SKIING: John Bauer won the pursuit race at Bozeman, Mont., to move a step closer to clinching a spot on his third U.S. team to be announced Jan. 20. Katerina Hanusov of the Czech Republic won the women's race at the U.S. Cross Country Championships. Nina Kemppel finished second to assure a spot on the U.S. team. ... American Chad Fleischer tore ligaments in his right knee in a World Cup downhill training session at Wengen, Switzerland, and likely will miss the Games. Giant slalom world champion Michael Von Gruenigen was diagnosed with a cracked right elbow joint, forcing him to withdraw from Sunday's race. ... Liv Grete Poiree of Norway edged Olga Pyleva of Russia by one second in a women's 7.5-kilometer sprint event at Oberhof, Germany, for her first biathlon World Cup victory this season.

SPEEDSKATING: Tommy O'Hare has asked for arbitration to resolve his claim that other competitors, including medal favorite Apolo Ohno, conspired to deny him a spot on the U.S. team. O'Hare's attorney, John Collins, said "numerous people" will support the claim that Ohno and training partner Rusty Smith fixed a race to boost their friend, Shani Davis, onto the team. ... Chris Witty, who won two medals at the 1998 Nagano Games and is preparing for Salt Lake, has anemia, which may explain why she has struggled in recent World Cup races.

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