Not only did Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes and the elfin Sasha Cohen all skate well enough to win the women's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Dallas last weekend, they also gave a glittering alternative to the sloppy men's competition. Michael Weiss's path to the title is too desultory to rehash, the first hash of it providing indigestion aplenty.
The feel-good story out of Dallas was Kwan, who went in as an underdog despite having won six of the last seven U.S. titles—she's 22, after all, an old bat—and skated better than she has since 1998. By winning her seventh U.S. crown, Kwan trails only Maribel Vinson Owen, who won nine between 1928 and '37.
The championships also reminded us that Kwan, Hughes (who was second) and Cohen (third) comprise a U.S. threesome as unique and talented as any who've competed at the same time. This leads to speculation of a sweep at the World Championships in Washington, D.C., in March. That's only happened once, in '91, when Kristi Yamaguchi won gold, Tonya Harding silver and Nancy Kerrigan bronze. That there's a chance for history to repeat itself is due largely to Hughes, 17. The surprise gold medalist in Salt Lake City last February has thus far eschewed a pro career and is the first reigning Olympic champion to return to compete at the U.S. nationals.
Hughes, who calls her desire to skate "addictive," skated winningly in Dallas despite having missed several months with a torn muscle behind her right knee. She didn't attempt either of her triple-triple combinations, the technical element that swept her to victory in Salt Lake, but she showed the competitive fire that's her hallmark, and that, along with her ability to convey the pure pleasure she feels when skating, makes her a threat in D.C.
Cohen, 18, who changed coaches during the summer, is now with Tatiana Tarasova, a renowned groomer of Olympic champions. Cohen entered the competition as the favorite, and despite a few small errors she unveiled her strengths—the dizzying variety of body positions and startling spins that make her the most arresting skater competing today. "All of us are tough cookies," said Kwan on Saturday.
Kwan is a link to that triumphant trio of '91. After that year Yamaguchi won Olympic gold in '92, then went pro; Kerrigan won the U.S. tide in '93, and Harding schemed with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly to whack Kerrigan with a pipe at the '94 U.S. nationals. The scandal created unprecedented interest in the sport, and Kerrigan proved to be a tough cookie herself, winning silver at Lillehammer. Kwan, who was second in the '94 nationals, was in Lillehammer as an alternate in case Harding was kicked off the team. (She wasn't but was later banned.) That was the first of Kwan's Olympics. From the looks of things, she may have one more in her.