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Fire on Ice

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To be sure, theirs is no rivalry like the soap-operatic example set by Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Four-time world figure skating champion Michelle Kwan, 21, has nothing to prove to anyone but herself, while Sasha Cohen, 17, must demonstrate that she is more than a promising upstart. Still, skating fans were startled on Jan. 12 when Cohen twice bumped Kwan during the six-minute warm-up preceding their long programs at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Distracted by the brush-bys, which snub etiquette but send a message, Kwan had no time to prepare for her jump combination of two consecutive triples. “I had to regroup and get myself together,” she says. “You just have to remember what you have to do.” Cohen, for her part, says without apology, “I try to go around people.”

The competition at L.A.’s Staples Center arena featured as many surprises and tears as triple jumps. But in the end, the 14 skaters who earned medals—and therefore a chance to compete in next month’s Olympics in Salt Lake City—pretty much mirrored expectations. Veterans Kwan and Todd Eldredge, 30, each took the gold in the singles. She will attend her second Games, he his third. She hopes to best her ’98 silver; he will skate for his first Olympic medal ever. Cohen, Sarah Hughes, 16, and Timothy Goebel, 21, will make their Olympic debuts, while Michael Weiss, 25, secured a return trip—but just barely. Pairs skater Kyoko Ina, 29, earned her third Olympic appearance but this time with partner John Zimmerman, 28. Rounding out the team are pairs skaters Tiffany Scott, 24, and Philip Dulebohn, 28; and ice-dancing couples Naomi Lang, 23, and Peter Tchernyshev, 28, and Beata Handra, 25, and Charles Sinek, 33.

In L.A., as she will be in Salt Lake City, Kwan was the premier attraction. Though she flowed through the first three minutes of her long program with her signature grace, she also displayed the sort of constrained composure that was said to have cost her the gold medal at the ’98 Games. But after nailing six triple jumps, Kwan burst into a radiant smile and in the final minute set the sell-out crowd of 18,035 ablaze with her passion. “When I nailed the last triple lutz,” says the L.A. resident, “I went flying.” With that, she earned a sixth U.S. title—and a respite from critics who had denounced her decision in October to dump Frank Carroll, her coach of 10 years, and go it alone.

The petite Cohen also ignited the crowd with her delicate but spirited interpretation of Carmen. Returning after a back injury that forced her to sit out last year’s Nationals, the Laguna Niguel, Calif., teen unexpectedly nudged aside Hughes for the silver. The upset was little surprise to her coach John Nicks. He has described Cohen, who smuggled a kitten into her hotel room during the Nationals, as “ambitious and willful.” Adds ’92 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie: “Of the three women, Sasha was the only one to perform moves I had never seen before. It’s a great thing to surprise the audience.”

In the ensuing hubbub, the usually perky Hughes was left to nurse her disappointment largely beyond camera range, though she did spill a few tears publicly right after scoring lower than Cohen. “The U.S. has a really strong team,” the Great Neck, N.Y., teen says gamely. “I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Ice-opera intrigue aside, the mature performances by each of the three medalists stirred excitement about the home team’s prospects when the Games begin Feb. 9. Their top competitors include Russia’s Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya. “We all think this is the best team we’ve ever sent,” says 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming, now a sports commentator. “We might sweep.” That would be an Olympic first in the ladies’ event. (At the 1991 World Championships, U.S. women made skating history by taking home all the hardware.)

The men’s competition was a different matter entirely. Eldredge, the well-liked elder statesman of skating, secured his sixth U.S. title. But the Lake Angelus, Mich., resident won more on the strength of his experience than on a dazzling performance. Skating safely, he failed to deliver a quadruple jump. (Defending champ Goebel of Rolling Meadows, Ill., fell on his second attempt at a quad and settled for silver.) But Eldredge voiced satisfaction. “When I won my first title in 1990, I was one of the youngest male skaters ever to win a title,” he says. “To think that 12 years later I would become the oldest man in 70 years to win a men’s championship, that’s pretty wild.”

The biggest surprise was the shaky showing by Weiss, a two-time national champion of McLean, Va., whose fifth-place finish in the short program left his daughter Annie-Mae, 3, asking, “Daddy, why didn’t you skate well?” During the long program, Weiss flubbed his first attempt at a quad, then tinkered with wife Lisa’s choreography and tried another quad midway through. “That’s probably the first time I’ve ever put a second quad in,” he says. “I wanted to be on this team very badly, and I guess it showed.”

The pairs competition also had its share of suds. In tears, the sister-brother team of Danielle and Steve Hartsell scratched just moments before they were to perform because of Steve’s groin injury. Consequently called to the ice early, defending champions Ina and Zimmerman cooled their heels in center rink as technicians queued up their music. The short delay seemed to break their concentration, but despite several errors, they held onto first place.

Of the Olympic aspirants, Kwan seems best-steeled for the tense weeks ahead. A year after her second-place finish to teammate Tara Lipinski at the ’98 Games, she said, “The whole process of getting there—that’s the moment I appreciate the most. Not just one night.” Kwan’s sense of perspective has recently been enhanced by a new love interest, hockey player Brad Ference, 22, of the Florida Panthers. “He knows what it takes for her to train,” says Kwan’s sister Karen, 23. “He’s very supportive.” As one who strives to skate her best rather than best her rivals, Kwan offers advice that any competitor might heed: “Just keep your head down and skate from your heart.”

Jill Smolowe

Lorenzo Benet and Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles