A fifth for Kwan

HER free program was in its final minute and the crowd was making enough noise to drown out the music, but Michelle Kwan could still hear it, still interpret it beautifully, still win to it convincingly.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

Michelle Kwan waves the American flag as she acknowledges the cheers of the crowd after winning the gold medal.-Pic. AP

HER free program was in its final minute and the crowd was making enough noise to drown out the music, but Michelle Kwan could still hear it, still interpret it beautifully, still win to it convincingly.

At 22, Kwan may not yet have made the sort of history she had in mind when she was a precocious youngster in California mastering the intricacies of her exacting craft. She has yet to win the Olympic gold medal, which remains figure skating's ultimate mettle detector. But the world championships are clearly more suited to her talents and temperament, and Kwan became the first woman in 43 years to win the world title for a fifth time.

She did it with a cool and evocative free program set to Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. It earned her fine technical marks, ranging from 5.7 to 5.9, and even finer marks for presentation, including two perfect 6.0s.

Yelena Sokolova of Russia won the silver medal to complete her comeback from the edge of retirement; Fumie Suguri of Japan won the bronze, just as she did last year at home in Nagano. Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes finished behind the top three.

"Athletes talk about being in the zone," Kwan said. "I feel like I'm walking through time, about to float on air." Under the interim scoring system being used this season, nine of the 14 judges' marks are selected at random by computer, but all 14 are displayed. As a result, there was no way to know whether the 6.0s awarded to Kwan counted toward her final score. Nonetheless, they were quite a compliment to a part-time skater.

After her latest Olympic disappointment — she finished third last year in Salt Lake City — it seemed likely that Kwan would move on with her life and leave the major competitions and major on-ice challenges to others.

But she decided to continue on her terms, and though it is far from certain that she will grant the Olympic wish of a fan who hung a banner tonight that read, "Kwan 2006 We Believe," she can have no regrets about her choice to skate this season.

"I had to be in the moment and enjoy myself," Kwan said. "This is my 10th worlds, and you don't know how many more you are going to have. You can't take it for granted." After winning the national title in January in similarly impressive fashion, she did not compete in any event in the two months leading to these world championships. Yet, she looked sharp, strong and, above all, at ease. In previous years, one could sense Kwan rushing to the finish; this time she seemed absorbed in the process.

"This year has been so enjoyable, because I've been so relaxed," she said. "Maybe it tells me something: that I should put less pressure on myself, just go out there and have fun. I've had such a long, wonderful skating career. I think everything else is extra." Though there were predictions of an American sweep coming into this event, only Kwan was at her best.

Neither the Olympic champion Sarah Hughes nor Sasha Cohen, who recently won the Grand Prix final, was able to put together a clean program. Hughes struggled in all three phases of the event, falling on a triple flip in the qualifying round and falling on the same jump again. She finished sixth.

Cohen, one of the most naturally gifted skaters in the world, also felt the pressure, falling in the short program and falling twice here. She left the crowd gasping in shock as she fell out of a routine spin sequence. She fell on a triple toe loop later in the program.

Her marks were still respectable, ranging from 5.4 to 5.7 for technical merit and from 5.5 to 5.9 for presentation, which was an unmistakable sign of the high regard in which the judges hold her. But she finished fourth, as she did at last year's Olympics and world championships.

No, this did not end up being an intramural tussle. It became a duel between Kwan and Sokolova, who was close to quitting the sport last year after failing to make the Russian Olympic team. She also spent several days in a hospital last summer with a severe concussion after a bag tumbled out of an overhead bin in an airplane and struck her on the head. To make complicated matters even more complicated, she also has a knee injury that will require surgery in the off-season. But her exuberance and athletic ability were there for all 16,116 fans in the MCI Centre to see.

Kwan skated second in the final group; Sokolva skated fourth, and her program was more technically difficult than Kwan's.

She landed seven triple jumps to Kwan's six, and landed a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. Kwan's best effort was a triple lutz-double toe loop.

But Kwan was clearly the better artist, and eight of the nine judges whose marks counted placed her first. Only one gave Sokolova the same treatment.

Kwan's first world title came in 1996. She won again in 1998, 2000 and 2001. She will never catch Sonja Henie, who won this competition 10 times (1927-36). But she has now caught Herma Szabo of Austria (1922-26) and Carol Heiss of the United States (1956-60), who each won five times.

But Szabo and Heiss also won Olympic gold medals. The only Olympic champion in the competition was Hughes. Just 16 when she leapt from fourth to first in the free program in Salt Lake City last year, she decided to break tradition and continue competing at the highest level. Why stop chasing medals just because she already had the one that mattered most? Perhaps she has part of the answer now. Being an Olympic champion means juggling new advantages and new commitments — new pressures, too.

And Hughes spent the last year doing plenty of juggling: taking a full courseload in her senior year of high school, preparing a television special that required her and her coach, Robin Wagner, to develop five new routines. She also had to recover from a torn muscle behind her knee.

"I have two major endorsement deals that have a lot of obligations, too," she said. "And I've just been running everywhere. It's been a little too much."

New York Times News Service