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Kwan Nears Perfection National Champion’s String Of 6.0s Leads U.S. Figure Skaters Into Olympics

How do you top near-perfection? By getting even closer to it the next time, as Michelle Kwan did Saturday night.

Kwan got eight perfect 6.0s out of nine marks for artistry in the free skate to win her second U.S. Figure Skating Championship in three years. The 1996 world and U.S. winner got seven 6.0s in the short program on Thursday.

The United States will send its three brightest skating stars to the Nagano Olympics next month. Defending world and U.S. champion Tara Lipinski and 1995 American titlist Nicole Bobek placed second and third, respectively, also skating marvelously, and will join Kwan, who got an automatic berth by winning.

An international committee chose Lipinski and Bobek for the U.S. team later Saturday night, meaning the last three women to win the American crown would go to Japan.

After Bobek nailed every element of her program with grace, Lipinski was even better doing a more difficult routine with seven triple jumps, including her trademark triple loop-triple loop.

Then came Kwan, who was sidelined in November and December with a stress fracture of a toe on her left foot. Performing to “Lyra Angelica,” she was almost heavenly.

Skating in front of her idol, Brian Boitano, who was working for ABC-TV, Kwan equaled Boitano’s achievement of eight perfect scores in a national championship.

“I have talked to Brian and asked him how it feels to be national, world and Olympic champion,” she said.

“We talked about it a lot and I took a lot of inspiration from him.”

Kwan, 17, hit six triple jumps, two in combination, but it was the beauty of her performance that jumped out at the judges and the crowd, which chanted “6.0! 6.0!” as she awaited her marks.

“I just listened to the crowd and listened to the music and I thought of angels and clouds,” Kwan said. “I thought, ‘I can do this,’ and just enjoyed myself.”

She received the most 6.0s in a free skate at nationals for any skater. And she might be enjoying herself a whole lot more in Japan as a gold medalist.

Then again, so might Lipinski, the 15-year-old jumping jack who has added considerable charm and personality to her routines.

“To come back even stronger was so exciting,” Lipinski said. “Coming here and doing great, I think I can do anything.”

Or Bobek, 20, who has staged a rousing revival of her career since winning her U.S. crown, could be atop the podium.

“The minute I finished, the first thing that ran through my head was Carlo,” she said tearfully of her former coach, Carlo Fassi, who died last March during the world championships, where she plummeted to 13th. “I felt like Carlo was there. I felt like I could see him. He is always with me. I know that.”

Any of the three is capable of a gold medal in any event if they skate as they did Saturday. Talk of a 1-2-3 sweep for these women would not be outlandish.

Earlier Saturday, Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow won their record-tying fifth U.S. championship in ice dancing. They equaled the achievements of Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky (1968-72) and Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert (1981-85).

Joining them at Nagano will be Jessica Joseph and Charles Butler, the rising stars of dance.

The other Olympians are five-time U.S. champ Todd Eldredge and Michael Weiss in men’s and Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen in pairs, along with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand.