Big Three to Skate at U.S. Titles

DALLAS -- An Olympic gold medalist. A six-time national champion. This season's most successful skater.

The competition should be intense this week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Salt Lake City winner Sarah Hughes makes her season debut in the most difficult of circumstances. Trying to win her first national title, she has to take on Michelle Kwan, the dominant skater of her generation, and Sasha Cohen, who has outperformed everyone on the Grand Prix circuit.

"As an athlete, I look to compete against the best and do my best when I'm put up against other skaters of a higher quality," Hughes said Tuesday night. "I'm still really eager to accomplish more things and have more goals I set out for myself."

Hughes is the first American woman to win the Olympic gold medal and then skate in the subsequent national championships. She's doing it the hard way, having been sidelined for nearly the entire season with a leg injury. Her one event was a relatively minor competition in December.

"I haven't competed in almost a year," she said. "It's almost like getting my feet under me. I'm not trying to match the Olympic experience. I know nothing is likely to ever match that."

Normally after an Olympics, many of the top skaters head to the professional ranks. But with the opportunities to make just as much money and maintain a much higher profile by staying Olympic-eligible, few are making the move to the pros.

That's led to the strongest post-Olympics field imaginable at nationals.

The 17-year-old Hughes and 18-year-old Cohen have the huge extra incentive of seeking their first U.S. crown. Except for Tara Lipinski in 1997, Kwan has won every American championship since 1996. And Kwan could move into second place among U.S. singles skaters with a seventh title, behind only Maribel Vinson's nine.

So while no Olympic berths will be at stake this week, something nearly as significant might be: the early leadership for the next Olympic cycle.

"I'm pretty psyched," said the 22-year-old Kwan, competing in her 11th nationals as a senior. "I've been working hard, I have a new coach [Scott Williams], and these two new programs I really like. And there is a title at stake, and that challenge always stays fresh.

"Some people say it is not a big deal, but it's another national title, so it is a big deal. Nationals is what all the U.S. skaters always talk about."

Cohen has been the talk of the circuit for the 2002-03 season. Kwan's only noteworthy competition was Skate America, where she filled in for the injured Hughes and won.

Cohen was busy winning Skate Canada and Trophee Lalique and placing second to Russia's Viktoria Volchkova at Cup of Russia -- but ahead of world champion Irina Slutskaya. Cohen also beat Hughes and Slutskaya at the International Figure Skating Challenge last month.

So does that make Cohen a good bet to add U.S. gold to her two silver medals at nationals?

"I hope so," she said. "I definitely would like to win a title. It would mean a lot. This is just as strong as the Olympic year and the skaters are very challenging. I have a lot of confidence in my programs. If I can put them out the best I can do, I have a shot at winning."

For Hughes, there is so much uncertainty about her conditioning, her new programs and her overall preparedness that skating her best here might not be a realistic goal. Not that she will back down from the challenge, especially with a spot on the U.S. team for March's world championships at stake.

"I definitely have a competitive nature that's brought out by skating," she said. "It's funny how different I can be on and off the ice."