On a night two teenage women made history, Michelle Kwan made mistakes. On a night a Japanese 17-year-old and Russian 18-year-old became the first women to land triple axels in 10 years, Kwan put forth an undistinguished performance that she described, perhaps aptly if not eloquently, as "icky."
Still, even as the relatively unknown Yukari Nakano and Ludmila Nelidina leaped into elite company in the record books, Kwan managed to skate away from the Skate America competition at Spokane Arena with the gold medal, her seventh title at this event.
Kwan, still uncertain about her future in the sport, got a boost from her past. A sluggish and spotty performance that included just four triple jumps, a fall on an attempted triple Lutz and a double rather than triple loop nonetheless was good enough for the victory -- thanks to a weak, mistake-prone field, Kwan's ever-lovely presentation and, surely, her strong international reputation. American Ann Patrice McDonough finished second and Ukraine's Elena Llashenko finished third.
"I was a little stiff out there," Kwan, 22, said. "I got it together at the end of the program, but it was a little too late."
In the men's competition, Russian Alexei Yagudin surprisingly withdrew moments before his performance. Yagudin, in first place after the short program, had said a degenerative hip problem could force him to give up skating. Yagudin said he will take time off and visit doctors in Russia. In his absence, France's Brian Joubert finished first, Russian Alexander Abt placed second and American Matt Savoie finished third.
Nakano, 17, became the first female skater since countrywoman Midori Ito in 1992 to land a triple axel in competition. A little later, Nelidina, 18, also landed one. They joined an exclusive group: Only Ito and American Tonya Harding had previously hit the difficult jump.
Neither skater, both new to the international scene, finished in the top four. Nelidina finished fifth; Nakano finished seventh. But both are symbolic of what Kwan faces if she decides to return full-throttle to competitive skating.
Nelidina has landed quadruple toe loops in practice. McDonough, 17, lands triple axels in practice. American Sasha Cohen, 18, who finished fourth at the Olympics and did not compete here, has been working on various quadruple jumps. American Sarah Hughes, 17, who dropped out of this event because of an injury, landed two triple-triple combinations at the Olympics.
"I think this is going to be a start of a trend," said Tom Zakrajsek, McDonough's coach.
Kwan, meantime, still struggles with triple-triple combinations -- she did only a triple-double here -- and relies on her artistry for her excellence. She said she is leaning toward competing at the U.S. nationals in Dallas in January, the qualifying meet for the 2003 world championships, which will take place next March in the District.
"I know there is so much competition out there," she said. "Nowadays, it's not like you can do five triples and you're all set. It's never smooth sailing. Hopefully I can build from here."
McDonough, considered one of the sport's rising young stars, rose from sixth after the short program despite a fall during her program to "Madame Butterfly" by Puccini.
"I was shaky and nervous," she said. "After that program, I didn't think it was the best I could do. I didn't think it was enough, because I was sixth."
In the ice dance competition earlier, American Benjamin Agosto also had doubts -- his were regarding the Elvis costume that took him and dance partner Tanith Belbin to a surprising bronze medal. When Agosto two weeks ago was presented with the outfit, a bejeweled full-length white jump suit with flared legs and sleeves, he reacted with horror.
"Oh, God," he recalled saying, "it's so hideous."
But the couple's choreographer and coach, Igor Shpilband, convinced him that Elvis had been over-the-top, and so, too, the costume must be over-the-top. As it turned out, the replica costume and engaging routine apparently helped launch the rising young ice dancers to their first international medal over world bronze medalists Israel's Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski, who finished fourth. The Ukrainian team of Elena Grushina and Rusian Goncharov finished first, followed by Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov.
"This has been a great competition for us," Agosto said. "It was just an amazing crowd. We had so much fun today. We never had a standing ovation before."
Agosto, 20, wondered aloud whether the new judging system and its anonymous scoring didn't help him and Belbin, 18, produce a rare upset in ice-dancing, the discipline most often accused of being predetermined, despite performing a program considered risky in front of figure skating's notoriously stodgy judges.
"That might be something that comes out of the new judging system," Agosto said. "I hope it does make everything fair for everyone."