Michelle Kwan has proven to be as consistent in U.S. figure skating championships as she is inconsistent in the Olympics. Kwan might never win an Olympic gold medal -- she owns a silver and a bronze -- but she can take consolation in the fact her trophy case is fairly stuffed with gold medals from her nation's most prestigious event.
Tonight, Kwan proved to be both ordinary and remarkable. It wasn't surprising to the roaring crowd at American Airlines Center that she earned her seventh U.S. title by finishing first in the deciding free skate, but more striking was that she did it after having not competed for 10 weeks and with a performance so clean and relaxed she received one perfect 6.0 score for presentation.
Kwan topped Sarah Hughes, who literally sprinted into the arena about 12 minutes before her warmup but still moved up from third after Thursday's short program, and Sasha Cohen, who dropped from second to third after making several mistakes. Ann Patrice McDonough, who nailed seven triple jumps in a nearly flawless skate, finished fourth.
"The last two minutes, I just let it all go," Kwan said. "I just skated my heart out. Nothing was holding me back. All I can say is I felt so alive, being in the moment, in the zone."
The medal-winning trio -- which represented the United States at last year's Olympic Games -- earned a trip to the March world championships in Washington. Though all get a fresh start at that competition, this title gives Kwan a significant international boost, suggesting to the world's judges that her time away from the sport and post-Olympic reflection about her career haven't diminished her ability to compete at the highest levels of the sport.
Hughes, after all, won the gold medal at last year's Olympics. Cohen has been the international women's leader during the Grand Prix season, winning two events and finishing second in another.
Kwan, who finished third at last year's Games, had thought as much about retirement as competing in these championships last summer. But she decided she loved competition too much to give it up. Tonight, hitting six triple jumps -- she eliminated one planned triple toe -- and executing a relaxed, flowing and graceful program, she won technical marks that ranged from 5.7 to 5.8 and presentation marks between 5.8 and 5.9, with the one 6.0 -- the 28th of her career.
Kwan, 22, drew the most dynamic crowd response of the night. With each successful jump, the crowd responded with roars and Kwan's energy level seemed to rise correspondingly. By the time she finished, she was smiling and crying simultaneously.
"It's overwhelming sometimes," she said. "It's the moment you've prepared for so long. Everyday, you are hoping you can skate as well as I did out there."
Hughes could face her skate with similar satisfaction, even if the result wasn't quite as she would have wished. For Hughes, tonight was about making the world team and launching herself into that event. This was her first major competition since last year's Olympic Games. She had begun the skating season with a knee injury that caused her to drop out of all of her Grand Prix events.
She also began the night in third place -- and she and her coach, Robin Wagner, misgauged the time of the event. They were seen running down an arena corridor minutes before Hughes's warmup.
"I left a little late," Wagner said.
"A little?" said Hughes, laughing.
Skating last among the top skaters, Hughes hit five triple jumps instead of a planned six, but her program to La Bayadere by Minkus otherwise went without a hitch. Hughes started with a somewhat hesitant double axel and triple lutz-double toe combination, but she warmed up to the routine, and the crowd, as her choreography unfurled. By the time she landed her last triple, a triple toe, she broke into a broad smile that she carried to the finish line.
"I definitely feel great to be back in competition, getting my feet back under me," Hughes said. "I'm happy the week is done and I'm also happy with what I put out there."
Cohen, 18, perhaps, carried the weightiest expectations coming into this competition given her full-throttle progress since last year's Games. She moved her family from California to Connecticut to train with esteemed coach Tatiana Tarasova. She won Skate Canada and Trophee Lalique. She came into this event more resolute and determined, it seemed, than Kwan and Hughes, both of whom seemed to step with more uncertainty given their unusual fall seasons.
Yet Cohen, as she did last year at the Olympics to fall from third to fourth place, made errors. She fell attempting a triple toe and landed awkwardly attempting a double axel. She two-footed another triple.
"I had a good strong first half," she said. "I was kind of disappointed with the end."