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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kwan and Slutskaya Meet in Moscow

Michelle Kwan will not forget the first time she met Irina Slutskaya, at the 1994 world junior figure skating championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"I remember her outfit," Kwan said, laughing. "It was like a tutu. It stuck out a little more than just a skating skirt, more like a ballerina's skirt. And she used to kiss a stuffed animal and set it on the ice when she skated. I was thinking, 'Who is she?'

"Then I saw her jump. And I was thinking, 'Who IS she?'"

Slutskaya's recollection is different.

"I saw a girl and I think, 'This girl is really good,'" she said by phone from her Moscow home. "I try to talk with her and she's really surprised. She looks at me and she say, 'Why do you have black skates?' That is all we had in Russia then.

"She is a great skater and great competitor, and I am happy to compete with her a long time. She grows, and I think I grow too. I think we both grow more strong and powerful and smart girls. This is an important thing."

Over the years, their curiosity matured into friendship and a respectful rivalry. They'll meet again this week in Moscow at the world championships, wiser and tempered by the challenges they've faced since their first encounter.

Competition began Monday with the men's qualifying and the pairs short program.

But it is the women, who first take to the ice Wednesday in the qualifying round, who will own the spotlight.

At the center will be Kwan, vying for her sixth world title and a niche behind only Sonja Henie, who won 10 world titles.

In January, Kwan tied Maribel Vinson Owen for supremacy among U.S. skaters by winning her ninth national title, but she skipped the Grand Prix series and hasn't competed under the new scoring system that will be in effect in Moscow and next year at the Turin Olympics.

Sharing center stage is Slutskaya, iron-willed beneath her ruffles and sequins as she fights vasculitis, which inflames the blood vessels and can cripple the body's organs.

She missed most of last season and finished ninth at the world championships after having skipped the 2003 competition in Washington to support her mother's battle with kidney disease.

"I don't want to say I feel great, because in general I have problems," said Slutskaya, who won her only world title in 2002 and has finished second to Kwan three times. "I grow tired fast. Sometimes my legs still hurt me, but I am right for this.

"I'm really happy I can compete again. Last year I was so unhappy, and it was a tough time for me. ... I am always sure I can compete again because I can feel power. The doctors say, 'We are not sure,' but I get this energy from skating."

In that they're similar, though they're daughters of different cultures.

Kwan, a California-born child of Chinese immigrants, is a paragon of artistry on the ice. Favored to win gold at the 1998 Nagano Games, she finished second to an exuberant and technically sharp Tara Lipinski.

Favored again at Salt Lake City, Kwan fell in the free skate and won bronze behind U.S. teammate Sarah Hughes and Slutskaya. Hughes went off to college and Slutskaya was on and off the ice, but Kwan remained atop the ranks of Olympic-eligible skaters.

"Going for a sixth world title -- that's amazing, that she has it in her and her body is holding up," U.S. men's champion Johnny Weir said. "I don't know if I would be able to go for a sixth world title. That's very specific to Michelle, and no one will ever match that love for the sport."

Slutskaya is 26, older than Kwan by 17 months and married since 1999 to Sergei Mikheyev, a physical education teacher.

Fifth at Nagano, Slutskaya also was disappointed at Salt Lake City after she outranked Kwan in the free skate but lost the gold to a masterful Hughes.

"We got to know each other more after 2002," Kwan said recently during a break from training at Lake Arrowhead. "During the [postseason] tours, that's when we really get a chance to talk. It's a friendly rivalry, and in skating it's very unusual. ...

"When we talk we put everything in perspective because we've been through so much. She's married now and always talks about having kids. She always asks me, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' She'll say, 'You're not married yet?' And I'll tell her, 'Well, if I find someone, I will.'"

The tasks they face this week might leave them less inclined to such chitchat.

Kwan will have to top her triumph at the U.S. competition, where her long program was stirring and triggered a shower of perfect 6.0s but contained only five triples and no triple loop.

She has had trouble with her right boot and has had to amend her "Bolero" long program to meet the requirements of the new judging system, primarily by increasing the difficulty of her spins and changing edges more often to earn points.

Slutskaya had a strong season and defeated Kwan and Sasha Cohen in December at an invitational event at Auburn Hills, Michigan, but a month later stumbled to her sixth European title.

She fell on a triple lutz and landed only three triple jumps but earned enough technical points from spins and spirals to hold off Susanna Poykio of Finland.

Slutskaya is also still trying to calibrate her medication properly to help her endurance, but she's determined to keep going.

"Sometimes I wake up in the morning and say, 'I can't move my legs, because they hurt so much,'" she said. "I do everything for skating, because I love it."