Michelle Kwan skated majestically to piano music by Rachmaninoff on Wednesday to take the lead over fellow American Tara Lipinski in their first Olympic showdown.
Kwan, the 17-year-old favorite for gold, took first place in the short program, outshining her 15-year-old rival, the reigning world champion, to gain an early advantage ahead of Friday's decisive free program.
"I saw the American flags and heard the cheering, and I thought, 'I'm in heaven'," Kwan said. "I thought, 'I've done everything possible so just go out and have fun'."
Kwan substituted the more painful triple loop jump, with which she is more comfortable, for the triple flip she did at last month's U.S. championships.
After all skaters had completed two-minute-40-second performances of eight required moves, European champion Maria Butyrskaya held third place and China's former world champion Lu Chen held fourth place.
The prospect of an American sweep vanished when Nicole Bobek, skating next-to-last, fell once on her first jump, stepped out of another jump, and cut short a third. She cried while awaiting her marks, never looking up. Of 28 skaters, she was in 17th place
The two leading Americans skated near-flawless routines, but Kwan had the technical and artistic edge over Lipinski, who dethroned her as world champion last year. The nine judges all gave Kwan 5.9 out of the maximum 6.0 for presentation.
Two of Lipinski's required three jumps were more difficult, but Kwan's were cleaner. Lipinski, nevertheless, was delighted with her own display.
"It was the best performance I thought I ever did. After the double axel, I wanted to do a whole four-minute program."
Butyrskaya, 25, had the disadvantage of skating first of the 28 girls but did well with a triple lutz-double loop combination, a triple loop solo jump, and a fine double axel.
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