Time passes, Olympic disappointments come and go, younger skaters challenge and conquer, and yet Michelle Kwan remains. The scene tonight was all too familiar: a U.S. national championship event, an adoring crowd, an inspired performance, an appreciative judging panel, a standing ovation.

And, of course, Kwan in the lead.

Seeking a seventh U.S. title, Kwan, 22, put together the cleanest, most relaxed, most stylish short program on a night her two teenage rivals made mistakes and drew far less enthusiastic applause from the Americans Airlines Center crowd. Sasha Cohen, 18, landed in second place and Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, 17, coming off a knee injury that caused her to miss the fall season, wound up in third. Jennifer Kirk skated a clean program and finished fourth.

The top three finishers here will advance to the world championships in Washington in March.

Everything went according to plan for Kwan. Even her nerves tingled in the way they always have. She said she felt like a junior skater making her first appearance at senior nationals.

"Nationals, I should be used to, but I still get jitters," she said. "You can hear your heart beat. It feels like it's in your mouth. That's why you hate it and love it."

And it's why Kwan, who skated a stylish program to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins", can't leave it. It's the competition and, she admits, the hope that with each routine, each spiral, each piece of footwork, that she will further carve out her legacy.

"For me, it's not all about history," she said. But "as a young kid, I wanted to be remembered as a legend -- to be remembered, period. I guess if I compete more and more, it's like remember me, remember me."

Though she competed in just one major event this fall, Skate America in October, she looked in midseason form tonight. All of her jumps -- including a triple lutz-double toe combination -- went off smoothly, and she skated with a vitality she has sometimes lacked.

"I really felt like I had a lot of energy, and the audience was really into it," Kwan said. " . . . I don't feel like I've been off the competitive circuit . . . . It's been pretty intense for me. I've been active. I haven't been sitting on the couch eating potato chips or anything."

Cohen, who skated last among the top skaters, had a chance to leave the arena tonight at the top of the heap -- which is where she spent most of the fall season. Cohen, however, struggled on her triple lutz-double toe combination, barely holding onto the triple and stepping out of the double. That mistake pushed her into second place, a position she has rarely been in recent months.

Cohen won two Grand Prix events this past fall and many considered her the favorite here. After her performance, she made it clear she felt the field at nationals was tougher than any she had seen overseas.

There are "so many talented ladies," she said. "It puts more pressure on and I think it brings the strong competitor out in everyone. It'll be a lot tougher to take home a title, but if I keep focusing on my triple-triples and pull out a clean long, I think it's possible."

Hughes didn't crash to the ice at any point, but her tentative skating cost her technical tenths. She barely, precariously hung on to her triple-lutz, double-toe combination and moved slowly -- almost cautiously -- through other elements. Her technical marks ranged from 5.1 to 5.7.

Unlike at last year's Olympics, when she finished her long program with an elated grin, she wore a look of resignation when this was over. A few minutes later, however, she smiled and even cracked a few jokes. It wasn't, after all, the Olympics.

"I was wobbly," Hughes said. "When I'm feeling off, it's hard to go full-speed ahead. I'm very proud of the fact, even though I tripped several times, that I was able to push full-speed ahead again until I tripped again."

For Hughes, this was the first major competition since last year's Winter Games 11 months ago. And, unlike in Salt Lake, the arena wasn't jammed -- there were thousands of empty seats. Hughes admitted at the start of the competition that she felt more ready for the season's first act, not its finale.

"With me coming off the Olympics, it definitely doesn't have the same feeling," Hughes said.

Still, Hughes said, the performance wasn't so bad, all things considered. This was the first time she had performed her short program to music by Rachmaninoff.

"I'm very happy with my performance," she said. "Of course, you always want to be 100 percent peak form, but at the point I am now, I couldn't be happier."

Kirk, who skated before the other top skaters, produced a clean performance that included a triple lutz-double toe combination. Fifth at last year's U.S. championships, finished sixth and fourth at the two Grand Prix events in which she competed this year.

"Nationals, I should be used to, but I still get jitters," leader Michelle Kwan said. "You can hear your heart beat. It feels like it's in your mouth. That's why you hate it and love it."