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Hughes ready for run at World Figure Skating Championships

| Sunday, March 23, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Seems like we've seen this before -- perhaps in Salt Lake City a little more than a year ago.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics, Sarah Hughes' stunning free skate catapulted her from fourth place to the women's figure skating gold medal. She beat a field that included more renowned countrywoman Michelle Kwan, who was a heavy favorite at those games, and another American teenager, Sasha Cohen.

Not to mention Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who would go on to win the '02 world championship, and Japan's rising star, Fumie Suguri.

All except Slutskaya are back for the World Figure Skating Championships that begin Monday with men's qualifying and the pairs short program. What should be a scintillating women's event starts with qualifying Wednesday.

Normally in a post-Olympic year, Olympic medalists head for the professional tours or retire altogether. So the world championship struggles to draw a top-notch field, and that has happened again in pairs and ice dance.

In the men's event, many Olympians are back, but Salt Lake City winner Alexei Yagudin, a four-time world champion, has not competed this season because of a hip injury. Fellow Russian Evgeni Plushenko is a prohibitive favorite over struggling Americans Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss and Japan's Takeshi Honda.

But the women's competition, even without Slutskaya, should be grand.

"I think the American public seemed to enjoy Salt Lake City and the level of the American ladies' skating there," says Hughes, whose season has been shortened by a leg injury. "And this will be just as entertaining. And just as fierce."

It will be particularly fierce among the three Americans. Slutskaya dropped out to deal with her mother's recovery from a kidney illness. The other Russians are not in the class of the Americans, although Victoria Volchkova and Elena Sokolova have had their moments this season.

Suguri, third behind Slutskaya and Kwan at last year's worlds, skated poorly at the Grand Prix final and is being challenged in her own country by Yoshie Onda and Shizuka Arakawa.

So talk of a medals sweep by the Americans isn't preposterous. It happened in 1991 with Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and the current Americans form a stronger trio.

"We are the American team," says Hughes, who was second at January's nationals, where Kwan won her seventh U.S. crown and fifth straight. "There is a great amount of respect; we've been through a lot together. I think we are all confident in who we are and the skaters that we are."

They have not been through much together this season. Only at nationals did they face each other. While Kwan chose to take it easy and Hughes was hurt, Cohen has been the busiest skater. She won Skate Canada and Lalique Trophy before beating Slutskaya at the Grand Prix final.

"In a way I am glad they stayed," Cohen says of the formidable competition. "With all these great skaters, they're going to push me and motivate me to work harder. Because of them I'm going to be a better skater."

They all are chasing Kwan, whose Olympic disappointments should not cloud her other achievements. A four-time world champion, she simply has been the most dominant figure skater of her era, and she measures up with anyone in any era.

"After I finish competing, maybe when I'm a pro or a grandmother, I'll be able to sort of look at what I did in skating," Kwan says with a laugh. "Right now, it is hard to say: 'Just one more, Michelle.' It doesn't help me get any further."

Kwan, the most decorated U.S. skater ever at worlds, has won at least silver every year since 1996. This season, the U.S. federation asked her to replace the injured Hughes at Skate America, the first significant event of the year, and Kwan won. She did not compete again until nationals, where she was brilliant.

And she hasn't competed in the two months since.

"I feel that I have competed so many years already, and I am used to the whole thing," she says. "I know how things work, judging and how people are skating. I am very aware of what's going on in the skating world.

"I don't feel right now it is necessary to travel and compete as much as a few years ago. Because of the stress on the body and the mind, the focus is not there.

"For me, I am really focused on the world championships. It is good to have that time, that break. ... I let myself come down from nationals and work my way back up to worlds."

The skaters are trying not to get worked up over the judging system in place for worlds. The controversial interim system set up by the International Skating Union following the Olympic judging scandal has drawn loud criticism from many factions, including the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Earlier this month, USFSA president Phyllis Howard said an "an environment of mistrust" was created by having a computer randomly and secretly selecting the judges whose scores count, with no one knowing which marks were used.

"The display of the marks has really created a problem in this country," Howard said.

Kwan hopes it is not a problem for the competitors.

"It is so difficult," she says. "Usually, you know what a judge gave you. If you have any questions, you can ask them or ask somebody what they think about your program. Now it will be just closed doors. I don't know what to think."

The ISU and local organizers have increased security for the event because of the war in Iraq, but there are no plans to postpone or cancel skating's biggest showcase of the year.

FIGURE SKATING

  • A central figure in the Salt Lake City Olympics scandal is leaving a powerful International Skating Union committee after being punished for speaking out against a new judging system.

    Ron Pfenning's resignation from the ISU's technical committee is effective April 15. He has been a member of the committee since 1994, and was easily re-elected at the ISU congress in June.

    Pfenning learned this week he was being replaced as referee of the women's event at the World Figure Skating Championships, an apparent retaliation for his protest over the way the ISU is judging events this season. The championships start Monday.

    Calls to Pfenning's Hyannis, Mass., home Saturday were not immediately returned. U.S. Figure Skating Association president Phyllis Howard called his decision a "serious blow" for the sport, which has struggled to regain its credibility since Salt Lake City.

    Pfenning was the referee of the Olympic pairs event, and his candor helped lead to the suspension of French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne.

    "Ron has proven to be an official of exceptional ability and integrity," Howard said. This "should serve as a wakeup call to the entire international figure skating community that important work remains."

    Pfenning believes the ISU Council abused the judging process by eliminating post-event discussion of marks. In December, the ISU unilaterally issued a communique prohibiting the release of individual judges' marks at the post-event meeting.

    Since the marks were no longer available, Pfenning said the referee could not accurately evaluate the judges and the job they did.

    "The rules for the post-competition meeting require discussing the placements of skaters by the judges, and then the referee must evaluate each judge's performances," Pfenning said Friday. "I was given the chance to do none of this after the Four Continents last month in Beijing."

    It was during a post-event discussion of marks at the 2002 Games that Le Gougne said she'd been pressured to vote for the Russian pair rather than the Canadians. Pfenning reported her outburst to ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, touching off the scandal that rocked the Salt Lake City Games.

    Ultimately, Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who lost to Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze by a 5-4 vote, also were given gold medals.

    Pfenning sent his formal protest to the ISU Council on March 6, and also indicated he would not follow the new procedure at the world championships. Cinquanta responded by essentially firing Pfenning as a referee at worlds.

    "At some point, people must stand up for their principals," Pfenning said Friday. "I tried to do that at the Olympics and I have done it here."

    BASKETBALL

  • The Chicago Bulls activated forward Eddie Robinson on Saturday and put reserve center Dalibor Bagaric on the injured list with a sprained left ankle.

    Robinson has appeared in 53 games for the Bulls, starting nine, and has averaged 5.7 points and 3.1 rebounds. He missed the last 13 games because of a pulled right hamstring.

    The 7-foot-1 Bagaric played in seven games this season, totaling 15 points and 16 rebounds in 48 minutes. He was drafted by the Bulls in the first round in 2000.

    CYCLING

  • Italy's Paolo Bettini won a three-way sprint to the finish in the opening stage of the Milan-San Remo race.

    Bettini, of the Quick Step team, beat Mirko Celestino and teammate Luca Paolini, completing the hilly, 181-mile leg of the first World Cup event of the season in 44 minutes, 43 seconds.

    World champion Mario Cipollini outsprinted the main group and finished fourth, 11 seconds back. Germany's Erik Zabel, a four-time winner in San Remo, finished sixth. American Guido Trenti was 10th.

    There were several spills in the final miles. Slovenia's Martin Derganc sustained a concussion when he crashed just outside the town of Imperia. He was taken to a hospital and was reported in stable condition.

    In last week's Paris-Nice race, cyclist Andrei Kivilev of Kazakhstan died of head injures after falling from his bike.

    SKIING

  • In Planica, Slovenia, Adam Malysz of Poland clinched an unprecedented third straight Ski Jump World Cup overall title, finishing second Saturday in the season's next-to-last event.

    Malysz has an insurmountable lead in the standings with 1,307 points through 26 events. Sven Hannawald of Germany is second with 1,155, with Andreas Widhoelzl of Austria third at 1,016.

    "Hats off to Malysz," Hannawald said. "He really deserves the overall victory."

    Malysz won one silver medal and one bronze at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

    He had jumps of 224.5 meters and 209.5 meters for 432.3 points Saturday, 1.2 behind Matti Hautamaki of Finland. It was Hautamaki's first victory of the year.

    Martin Hoellwarth of Austria was third, followed by Hannawald and Veli-Matti Lindstroem of Finland.

  • In Falun, Sweden, overall champions Mathias Fredriksson of Sweden and Bente Skari of Norway won the final individual World Cup cross-country races of the season.

    Fredriksson finished the 10-kilometer classical and 10-kilometer freestyle event in 57 minutes, 17.0 seconds.

    Norway's Frode Estil was second, 17.1 seconds back, and Swede Jorgen Brink finished third, 18.4 seconds behind.

    Fredriksson finished with 875 points, well ahead of runner-up Rene Sommerfeldt of Germany, at 589.

    Norway's Thomas Alsgaard finished 44th in the last major race of his career.

    Skari finished the women's 5-kilometer classical and 5-kilometer freestyle event in 32:30.2 for her 14th win of the season.

    Germany's Evi Sachenbacher was second, 7.8 seconds off the pace, and Russia's Olga Zavaliova finished third, 8.4 seconds back.

    Skari topped the final standings with 1,392 points. Estonia's Kristina Smigun was second with 834.

    SPEEDSKATING

    In Warsaw, Poland, China's Jiajun Li won the men's 500-meter race and compatriot Yang Yang won the women's sprint at the short-track speedskating World Championships.

    Li won the 500 for the second straight year, finishing in 43.210 seconds, just ahead of countryman Ye Li's 43.291.

    Yang, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist, won in 46.270 seconds. Canada's Amelie Goulet-Nadon finished second in 46.314.

    TENNIS

  • Andre Agassi opened his bid for a sixth title at Key Biscayne by beating longtime rival Michael Chang, 6-4, 6-2, at the Nasdaq-100 Open.

    Showing no signs of the sore shoulder that forced him to skip the tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., this month, Agassi smacked six aces and lost a total of only 16 service points.

    When Chang hit an errant forehand on match point, the two Americans removed their caps and shook hands at the net, perhaps for the final time. Chang plans to retire after the U.S. Open.

    On another steamy day in South Florida, sixth-seeded Jennifer Capriati started slowly but won her opening match against Anastassia Rodionova, 7-6 (3), 6-2.

    "The conditions are a little tough," Capriati said. "It's a little hot out there. I felt a little sluggish out there in the beginning. I don't think I played like my greatest tennis. I mean, I didn't have to, luckily."

    Chang, who hasn't won a set against Agassi since 1996, couldn't muster the firepower to pull off an upset this time.

    The only service break of the opening set came in the seventh game, when Chang lost his serve with four backhand errors. Agassi broke twice more in the second set and never lost his serve. Even two brief rain delays couldn't halt his momentum.

    The second-seeded Agassi improved to 15-7 against Chang. He became the favorite to win his third consecutive Key Biscayne title when No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt was upset in his opening match Friday night by Francisco Clavet.

    No. 4 Roger Federer, who lost to Agassi in last year's final, beat Luis Horna, 6-2, 7-5.

    Agassi won his first two tournaments of 2003, including his eighth career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. But he lost his opening match at the beginning of the month in Scottsdale, Ariz., to Thomas Enqvist and hadn't played since.

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