They skated three hours apart, but their programs felt confrontational. There was the adrenalin-charged hometown kid, Michael Weiss, seemingly lifted by the crowd's electricity, pulling off one of his sharpest showings in years to finish at the top of his qualifying group at the start of the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships at MCI Center. Weiss, who has said for weeks he intends not merely to medal but to win, concluded his program with a fist-thrust so violent he almost spun himself around.
And then there was the blond-haired, sweet-faced Russian Evgeny Plushenko, who took Weiss's challenge with the coolness of a crapshooter and, without fanfare or fist pumps, simply topped it. Obliterated it. Plushenko spun off a blizzard of tight, clean jumps in the opening minute of his program and then unleashed an exhibition of intricate footwork, dramatic choreography and flowing jumps. The performance ignited a rousing standing ovation and earned him a perfect 6.0 score in the other qualifying group, which he won.
Today's qualifying round, worth 20 percent of the score, left Weiss and Plushenko tied on the scoreboard but, perhaps, at some distance in other ways. Plushenko seemed to signal, with flair and authority, that he is determined to regain the world title he won in 2001. Weiss, a two-time world bronze medalist, made it clear he is ready to grab either a stunning upset or, perhaps more likely, a career-best silver.
Both, though, had the same essential message: They came ready to play.
"I'm excited to skate well in front of the hometown crowd," said Weiss, 26, who was born in Washington and lives in McLean. "I just want to carry the momentum into the long and short programs."
Plushenko, 20, spoke only briefly to reporters.
"That's a good skate, clean," he said. "I did a new combination and felt good."
American Tim Goebel finished just behind Plushenko and produced a skate that received slightly better marks than Weiss's did. But unlike Weiss and Plushenko, Goebel skated conservatively. He landed two quadruple jumps -- Weiss barely two-footed both of his -- fell out of two triple axels and executed his program with a dash less resolve and exuberance.
Japan's Takeshi Honda hit a quadruple-triple combination but made three major mistakes. He finished behind Weiss -- and just ahead of surprise third-place finisher Ryan Jahnke of the United States.
For Weiss, the performance was the designated Step One of a three-part plan: three clean skates on the way to a gold medal. After a disappointing Olympic Games last winter in which he finished seventh, Weiss has looked to this event, 30 minutes from his home, as the place he would make a lasting mark on the sport. He already has rented a limousine for the celebration he is banking on after Thursday's final. He flew in his personal hypnotherapist for the two weeks leading up to the event to make sure his mind was as ready as his body. And he doesn't hide the fact that he has envisioned the gold medal around his neck. Such imagery has been a crucial part of his training.
"That's what I've been talking about for the last couple of weeks," he said. "It would be fantastic. . . . It would mean a lot to me."
Today, almost everything went to plan. Wearing black pants and a tight-fitting dark shirt lined with blue sequins, Weiss executed an almost-clean quadruple toe, triple toe combination, barely two-footing the landing of the quad. He then hit an oh-so-close quadruple toe jump, two-footing that one also. ("I'm convinced his left leg is longer than his right," his coach, Don Laws, said about Weiss's perplexing two-footing tendency.) Weiss hung on to a triple axel-triple toe combination and a triple loop, then hit a double axel instead of a triple. But he soared through a triple flip, triple salchow and triple lutz and the crowd of about 4,000 erupted as he reeled off his final spin. He received technical marks ranging from 5.3 to 5.8 and presentation marks from 5.5 to 5.8.
"This," Laws said, "is why I'm still coaching. For these moments."
Plushenko, the reigning Olympic silver medalist, did not bring out anything new -- in fact, he reused his long program from last year -- but his performance was somewhat surprising given that his training has been hampered by a knee injury.
Plushenko, wearing a tight-fitting black velvet costume with a metallic collar and cummerbund, started his performance to Carmen with a flawless quadruple toe-triple toe-triple loop combination, then hit a triple axel-triple toe combination and a triple salchow. He finished with nine triple jumps and one quad.
Once Plushenko got past the most taxing parts of his program, he played the joyous showman, smiling at the judges, winking at fans and dancing as much as he skated. He also cut and sliced across the ice with high-speed, intricate footwork that left the crowd breathless. His marks for technical merit ranged from 5.8 to 5.9 and, for presentation, 5.9 to 6.0.
After the performance, his coach, Alexei Mishin, urged him to keep his interviews short, telling him he could talk all he wanted once the event was concluded. Plushenko told Russian television he was pleased with the 6.0 but added a cautionary note: It was still early. There was much more left of the competition.
But told he looked like he was having a ball, he grinned.
"That's true," he said. "I like to skate. I like to jump."