It was 3:42 p.m. and Michelle Kwan had a little more than an hour remaining before she had to skate her short program. But she got a bit concerned when she heard a familiar cello sonata over the MCI Center loudspeakers.

The music was playing for Sarah Hughes. But if Hughes was skating, then why was Kwan backstage stretching instead of getting ready to take the ice herself?

"I heard her music and I said, 'Am I late?' " said Kwan, who finally remembered that Hughes was skating early because she had placed sixth in her qualifying group on Wednesday.

For the last several years, it had been almost a given that Kwan and Hughes would compete against each other in the final group of top contenders. But the qualifying round left the reigning Olympic gold medalist in less exalted company.

"Actually it was odd for me," said Hughes, who skated a solid short program yesterday afternoon but is still ninth overall. "Unfortunately after the qualifying, I changed some of the faces myself."

As well as Hughes skated, it wasn't enough to put her in the final group for tonight's free skate. Skating in the final group is important because judges tend to reserve the higher scores for the top skaters. That doesn't mean that the judges won't give Hughes good marks, but they know that they will have to "save room" for Kwan, Russia's Elena Sokolova, Japan's Fumie Suguri and Sasha Cohen, the top four following the short program.

But it doesn't help to skate early, as proven yesterday when Hughes received a standing ovation but low marks from the people in the crowd who mattered most. Two judges gave her 4.8s in technical scoring, although the new judging system only uses nine of the 14 judges' marks and no one -- not even the judges themselves -- know which marks are used to tally the final score.

"We're just hoping those aren't the marks that counted," said Robin Wagner, Hughes's coach.

There also is some speculation that Hughes's technical scores were low because she is prone to "flutzing" -- turning a lutz into a simpler flip jump by taking off from an inside edge instead of an outside one.

There is a subplot to the flutzing problem, too. Hughes's other triple in the short program is a flip, so by flutzing, she is actually repeating a triple.

That's a no-no in the short program except if the triple jump is repeated in a combination.

That's just one of the many perplexing problems circulating in Hughes's busy and complicated life these days. She's finishing her senior year in high school and is expecting acceptance letters from Yale, Princeton and Columbia. Hughes has already been accepted by Harvard.

This week, at least, she is trying to focus on the ice and hopes she can finish on a strong note. A medal is well out of reach, and even the most famous comeback kid of skating can't pull off much magic here.

So what would be a good ending for her now?

"If I can see her bowing at the end of her program and feeling good about herself, having gotten through a challenging and very difficult year, that would be very good for her," Wagner said. "We're not looking at marks or placements because this is not what this event has become about."

Sarah Hughes skated a solid short program but is still 9th. Hughes's technical scores were low because of "flutzing" -- turning a lutz into a simpler jump.