Kwan deep-sixes field to regain her U.S. title 8 of 9 marks perfect

Lipinski, Bobek are 2-3

January 11, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Seventeen-year-old Michelle Kwan flirted with perfection last night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, her remarkable long program highlighting a string of strong performances that could portend an unprecedented medal sweep at the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Kwan swept to victory and defending U.S. and world champion Tara Lipinski bounced back from a disappointing performance in the short program to finish second before an animated sellout crowd of 19,082 at the CoreStates Center.

Nicole Bobek also skated a mistake-free long program to finish third, assuring that the nation's top three medal hopes -- and the same three women's skaters who represented the United States at last year's World Championships -- will travel to Nagano, Japan, for the Winter Games next month.

"I can't believe I'm going," said Kwan, who nailed both her short and long programs to make it a foregone conclusion. "This is the ultimate. I'm ready for this. Let's go."

Kwan picked up right where she left off earlier in the week, when she received seven perfect scores for presentation in the short program. She skated another near-perfect program last night and was rewarded with eight 6.0s in nine marks to capture her second U.S. championship.

"It was the performance of my life so far," said Kwan, who showed no effects of a recent stress fracture of a toe on her left foot. "There are things about my performance that I think I can improve on, but perfect sixes? How can I improve from this?"

By joining both Lipinski and Bobek on the Olympic medal stand perhaps?

"They've all proven that they are the very best skaters in the world," said Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, "so the chances are excellent."

Bobek's coach, Christa Fassi, was quick to agree.

"I think we really have the dream team for these Olympics," she said.

If the evening was a celebration of the status quo in women's skating, it was something less for 26-year-old Tonia Kwiatkowski, who fell twice during her long program and ended up in fourth place.

Kwiatkowski was third after the short program and was threatening to make life difficult for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which likely would have sent Bobek and Lipinski to Nagano regardless of the outcome of last night's competition.

Only the winner receives an automatic berth, and it was inconceivable that Lipinski would have been left behind after winning the world championship in 1997. She had stumbled in the short program and came into last night in fourth place, but overcame some apparent jitters to deliver a strong performance that vaulted her into second place.

"It was the goal of my dream to make the Olympic team," said Lipinski, a 15-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas. "Now, I'm looking forward to going to the Olympics and plan to make more dreams come true there."

Lipinski has not faced a lot of adversity during her four-year competitive career, so the long program was a test of her mettle, and of her potential to medal at the Olympics. She recovered nicely and will go to Nagano among the favorites -- along with Kwan -- to win the gold.

"It felt great, especially after a so-so short," Lipinski said. "To come back even stronger was really exciting. I feel like I can do anything."

Bobek, 20, was the first to skate in the final group and immediately served notice that she planned on a trip to Japan next month. She skated a strong, but conservative long program to hold her place on the medal stand.

"The minute I finished, the first thing that ran through my head was Carlo," she said tearfully of her former coach, Carlo Fassi, who died last March during the world championships, where she plummeted to 13th. "I felt like Carlo was there. I felt like I could see him. He is always with me. I know that."

Earlier, Michigan pair Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow continued to dominate the ice dance competition, winning their third U.S. title in a row and fourth in the last five years.

They finished a disappointing 15th in the 1992 Olympics, but hope that a more relaxed, upbeat approach at Nagano will put them in better position for a medal.

"The last Olympics was a mixture of highs and lows for us," said Punsalan. "This time, we'd like to go there and make it a celebration."

No American dance pair, however, has finished higher than third in the Olympics -- the only medal ever was a bronze by Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns in the inaugural Olympic ice dancing competition in 1976.

"It's extremely tight," said Swallow. "There are six or seven couples who are very close together. We just hope we can lay down performances that are impressive enough for the panel to give us our due -- whatever that may be."

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