Alissa Czisny is used to being the afterthought, the substitute skater no one really wants to see. This week, she was a late fill-in for an injured Sasha Cohen at Skate America. At last year's event in Pittsburgh, it was the same story: Cohen bowed out, Czisny was called in. And at a made-for-television international competition a couple of weeks ago, when Michelle Kwan withdrew, Czisny's phone rang again.

Until this weekend, however, opportunity did not bring recognition. Czisny finished fourth in Pittsburgh and fifth at the Campbell's Classic in St. Paul, Minn. She seemed just as anonymous after the events as before. But her story line abruptly changed just after 7 p.m. Saturday, when Czisny, 18, reeled off an elegant, nearly mistake-free long program that made it clear she intends to be solidly in the running for a spot on this winter's U.S. Olympic team.

Czisny finished first in Saturday's crucial program, allowing her to move up from third after the short program to second overall in the women's final at Boardwalk Hall. Russian Elena Sokolova, in the lead after the short program, finished second Saturday but still managed to claim the victory, totaling 163.02 points. Czisny, who finished with a score of 159.30, passed Japan's Yoshie Onda (150.98), who had been in second place after the short program.

Czisny repeatedly screamed "wow" in the kiss-and-cry area when her marks in the long program (106.48) appeared on the scoreboard. Her only major error was a fall on an attempted triple flip. Sokolova, who accrued 105.08 in the long program, did not hit the ice, but her program lacked the complexity in spins that Czisny's had.

"I hadn't gotten such high marks yet for a program," Czisny said. "I was very excited when I saw those marks."

With the experienced Kwan and Cohen both battling hip injuries, the jostling for the three U.S. women's Olympic team spots already feels heated among a group of up-and-comers, even though the spots won't be awarded until the U.S. championships in January. Bebe Liang, who finished fourth (133.00) here, could contend, along with Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, Md., who did not compete here, and Emily Hughes, the little sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah. After a horrific short program, Hughes moved from eighth to fifth overall (126.78) Saturday.

"My goal is obviously to make the Olympic team," Czisny said. "For me, it doesn't matter who else is in it, I have to think of my own skating and my own competition."

Czisny is off to St. John's, Newfoundland, on Thursday to compete in Skate Canada, one event that's long been on her calendar. But first, she must take an exam Monday -- a French test. She is trying to make her first Olympic team while taking a full course load at Bowling Green University in Ohio. Besides French, she has courses in Russian, the history of world civilization and women's studies.

"It's been a little bit busy of a season for me," said Czisny, who finished sixth at last spring's junior world championships, behind Hughes (third) and Meissner (fourth). "I don't get much free time."

Neither does Hughes, a junior at Great Neck (N.Y.) High. After a mistake-riddled performance that left her in eighth place after the short program, Hughes vowed to skate better and did. She stumbled out of a triple-flip jump and fell attempting a triple Lutz, but otherwise skated to a fourth-place finish in the long program.

"I had a lot of fun," she said. "Except for the part when I was on the ice."

Czisny, a twin whose sister, Amber, also is a competitive skater, almost certainly would have won the competition had she not fallen while attempting a triple flip. The automatic deduction of one point off of her final score, along with the averaged deductions of around three points for the element, proved decisive.

Still, Sokolova, the world silver medal winner in 2003, celebrated her victory. She is trying to return to the Olympics after an eight-year absence and having overcome a concussion in 2002 that caused her to consider quitting the sport.

"I'm absolutely satisfied, absolutely happy," she said. "Hopefully Skate America will give me a lot [of momentum] for the Olympics."

Skating Notes: After a week of high expectations and illness, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won their third straight title at Skate America with their top finish in Saturday's free dance. The pair entered this event as huge favorites given their second place at last spring's world championships in Moscow, but Belbin was slowed all week by bronchitis. . . .

In the pairs final, China's Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao finished first with a total of 179.14 points, topping Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr., who climbed from third after the short program (164.44 points). The U.S. team of Marcy Hinzman and Aaron Parchem fell from second to fifth place (154.30).

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto compete during the free dance program at the Skate America competition.