What to make of what happened yesterday at the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships at MCI Center? The top three American women, expected to be elbowing each other at the top of one group, were instead scattered about the standings like stuffed animals on the ice.

Rather than 1-2-3, Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes were separated by more complex math. Finishing 1-3-6 in the first of two qualifying groups, they didn't look the part of a powerful American brigade. Rather, they appeared to be three talented but vulnerable skaters forced to fight for their positions in a competition worth 20 percent of the final score.

The short version of a complicated afternoon on ice: Kwan skated well but not flawlessly. Cohen had one of her best skates of the season, but wasn't rewarded. Hughes performed the converse of last year's Olympic long program, producing a wrenching collapse rather than a stunning rise. The most impressive skate of the day arguably belonged to Russian Elena Sokolova, who finished between Kwan and Cohen.

Skaters speculated that a number of factors influenced the strange results: The 10:30 a.m. start, which Kwan compared to a lazy Saturday matinee; the difficult qualifying group in which all three Americans landed -- and which arguably included the four premier skaters of the event; and the inherent unpredictability of a sport competed on the edge of a blade.

"It takes a lot of concentration to do a program with seven triples, skating against the two top Americans as well as in the tough group we have," Cohen said.

Even Kwan, 22, a four-time world champion who made just one mistake and received a lusty standing ovation, was outshined technically by Sokolova, who performed more difficult combination jumps and drew a loud ovation herself.

Kwan's performance fit somewhere between solid and spectacular. She hit five clean triples, but stumbled in the middle of a combination jump, then turned a planned double into a single. She also chose not to attempt any triple-triple combinations -- a feat that Sokolova achieved twice.

The judges, nonetheless, showed their approval, giving Kwan marks ranging from 5.7s to 5.8s for technical merit and 5.8 to 5.9 for presentation.

"It's so early . . . you really have to psych yourself up," Kwan said. "I have no complaints about my performance."

Cohen performed a mostly clean routine and finished her skate with a wide smile and by throwing both arms into the air. She was elated. Her only notable mistake was an unexpected trip as she turned a corner near a wall. It was, she believed, one of her best long programs of the year.

Cohen, though, was stuck with the most puzzling score of the day and arguably the most painful position among the top skaters: Along with an impressive string of 5.7s through 5.9s for presentation, she earned a curious 5.1. And by landing in third place in one of two groups, she trails four skaters entering Friday's short program.

When Cohen saw the 5.1 flash on the scoreboard, she wrinkled her nose but quickly replaced it with a grin.

"I was like, 'Whoa,' " she said. "I've gotten pretty high marks all season when I haven't skated as well as this."

Indeed, Cohen, 18, has accomplished just about every goal she set this season. She won two Grand Prix events and the season-concluding Grand Prix final. Her only lapse came at the U.S. championships in January, when she finished behind Kwan and Hughes. It was a repeat of that mistake-filled performance that she wished to avoid yesterday.

"The two weeks before I was really practicing mentally different ways to go about attacking the elements," she said. "You have to be happy with your own improvement. I look at where I was one or two years ago and I've come such a long way."

Japan's Fumie Suguri won the other qualifying group, followed by Canadian Jennifer Robinson and Russian Viktoria Volchkova.

Hughes, 17, started tentatively and finished grimly. She fell once, turned two planned triples into singles and stumbled on another jump. After the skate, the reigning Olympic champion stood tight-lipped and teary-eyed. Her technical marks dipped as low as 4.7. Her presentation scores sank as low as 5.0.

"It's okay," she said, having regained her composure several minutes after leaving the ice. "It's one program. . . . I'm actually looking forward to doing the short and long. I think I have something inside me to give that extra [edge], and I think that's what I needed. It's always good to get the adrenaline going."

Hughes started with a double axel and triple toe, but she turned a planned triple salchow into a single. After a triple loop, she stumbled in the middle of a triple-double combination and fell attempting a triple flip. Her last planned jump, a triple toe jump, became a single.

"At this point, the program is done," Hughes's coach, Robin Wagner, said. "We're going to move onto the next one. Overanalyzing at this point is not going to bring back the program."

Olympic champion Sarah Hughes had a rough and tumble day at MCI Center, finishing sixth in her qualifying group. "It's okay. It's one program," she said.Hughes, 17, falls attempting a triple flip. She also turned two planned triples into singles, stumbled on another jump.Four-time world champion Michelle Kwan keeps her balance for first place. "I have no complaints about my performance," she said.