January 14, 2005

Kwan, Goebel Win Skating Event Programs

PORTLAND, Ore. - There was a moment of silence for the mother of a grieving friend, a glimpse of perfection from a rising star and the soothing steadiness of Michelle Kwan. In other words, drama and emotion marked Thursday's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Kwan led, as expected, after a polished short program, while Timothy Goebel landed a clean quad and displayed a vastly refined style among the men. But a pall was cast over the event as competitors struggled to absorb the death of a beloved member of skating's family.

Dolores Nikodinov, the mother of two-time U.S. bronze medalist Angela Nikodinov, was killed Wednesday when the shuttle the family was taking from the Portland airport to a downtown hotel collided with a car. Dolores Nikodinov was pronounced dead at the scene.

Angela Nikodinov and her father were treated and released from a hospital. Her coach, Igor Pashkevich, remained hospitalized Thursday night with a concussion, a cut to his head and broken bone in his neck.

Nikodinov withdrew from competition and instead made funeral arrangements for her mother, a supportive fixture at skating events. A moment of silence was held before the ladies' short program competition at the Rose Garden.

Kwan ended the night with an elegant, crowd-thrilling performance that earned her three 6.0s for presentation. Kwan has 38 perfect marks over her career at nationals, far and away the most by any skater. Brian Boitano is the closest with nine.

If Kwan wins the free skate Saturday night, she'll win her ninth U.S. title and tie the record set by Maribel Vinson Owen in the 1920s and 1930s. She already has seven straight, the longest streak in U.S. women's history.

Sasha Cohen, second at last year's nationals as well as worlds, was runner-up after a short program that included a few mistakes. But Cohen was nonetheless happy with her performance after a difficult couple of months that included boot trouble, injuries and a big move.

After splitting with coach Robin Wagner and moving from the East Coast to California last month, Cohen reunited with John Nicks, who'd trained her from 1996-02.

"I think Sasha is a much more confident skater — and she's enjoying her skating," Nicks said.

Cohen, who put a hand down on her triple lutz, refused to characterize the Saturday night's free skate as a Kwan-Cohen showdown. But the rivalry talk was fueled by a near-miss with Kwan in the warmups.

Near misses are commonplace in warmups, but any time Kwan has one, Cohen seems to be nearby. At the 2002 nationals, she brushed Kwan in warmups before the free skate, unnerving Kwan and forcing her to take some extra time before she started her program.

The next month, at the Salt Lake City Olympics, the two ended up in the same corner within inches of each other at a practice.

This time, Kwan was in midair, about to land a double axel. Courtesy would give Kwan the right of way — you can't change course when you're in the air — but Cohen began a jump and the two nearly collided. The crowd gasped and Cohen darted out of the way, avoiding disaster.

Jenny Kirk, last year's bronze medalist at nationals, was third.

Goebel was in first after his short program, a passionate performance that ended with tears streaming down his face.

Goebel is close friends with Angela Nikodinov and was drained physically and mentally, but he cleanly landed a quadruple toe loop.

"I came well-prepared and healthy," he said. "I worked too hard and have gone through too much this year to have it all fall apart."

In the past two months, Goebel has overcome serious injury to his neck that kept him off the ice for more than three weeks and an abrupt coaching shakeup that had him leaving Frank Carroll for Audrey Weisiger.

And then his friend's mother.

"I've certainly had stressful situations before, but yeah, this blows anything else out of the water," he said.

Defending champion Johnny Weir was second going into Saturday's free skate after he struggled to hold the landing on his triple axel and triple flip.

Weir watched Goebel's performance and knew he could not match it.

"Even though we're competitors, we're friends first," Weir said. "I wanted to be there for him — just in case."

Evan Lysacek, who won the silver last year in the junior worlds after placing fifth in the nationals, earned a 6.0 for artistry and finished in third.

"I'm so stoked. That's so cool," Lysacek said. "That's the first one of my career."

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