SALT LAKE CITY -- The United States will bring the sport's crown jewel, Michelle Kwan -- and a collection of less-sparkling skaters -- to next month's world championships in Finland.
Kwan won her third U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday. She was unchallenged at the Delta Center and, with the exception of perhaps Russia's Maria Butyrskaya, doesn't figure to have much trouble winning her third world title.
"I love competing at nationals, worlds and Olympics," Kwan said. "I don't pay attention to people who are coming up. You know there are people out there, working just as hard as you, maybe even harder. You have to be on top of your game, because you just never know."
Many of those people coming up are precocious teens who idolize Kwan, even though she's just 18 herself. Two of them, 13-year-olds Naomi Nari Nam and Sarah Hughes, finished second and fourth at the nationals.
Nari Nam can't go to the worlds because of her age, but Hughes can after finishing second in the 1999 World Junior Championships, thanks to an International Skating Union rule: A medalist at the world juniors, regardless of age, is eligible for the next senior worlds.
"I'm not really worried about not going to worlds," Nari Nam said, although her coach, John Nicks, was angry about what he termed "age discrimination."
"I'm happy about my placement," added Nari Nam, who will be replaced by Hughes.
The other U.S. woman on the team is third-place finisher Angela Nikodinov, also a newcomer to senior worlds. She got a telephone pep talk from Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, now a pro, before Saturday's free skate.
While Kwan is America's best bet in Finland, U.S. men's champion Michael Weiss isn't nearly as strong a contender. Weiss once again missed his quadruple toe loop in the free skate, and against the likes of Russian world champ Alexei Yagudin, Weiss will need the four-rotation jump.
He plans to use it twice -- for the first time, quads are allowed in the short program, too.
"The quad in the short is something a bunch of people have tried this year that hasn't paid off yet," said Weiss, who was sixth at the '98 worlds. "It could be something that is very crucial in the next couple of years.
"I've been working on it, doing it well in practice, and plan on doing it at the world championships this year."
He also will switch his short program from Van Halen to Beethoven, hoping to have more appeal to foreign judges.
Joining Weiss in Helsinki will be Trifun Zivanovic, who soared from seventh to second in one year, and Timothy Goebel, the only American to cleanly land a quad in competition. Both will make their senior world debuts.
Zivanovic staged the best performance of his life in the free skate. He draws inspiration from his mother, Glenda, who has multiple sclerosis and attended the nationals in a wheelchair.
The American ice dancers also have little major international experience in seniors. Winners Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev never have been to the senior worlds. Runners-up Eve Chalom and Mathew Gates went in 1997 and were 17th.
Pairs champions Danielle and Steve Hartsell won the world juniors in '97 and steadily moved up the U.S. ranks. But to expect them to excel in Helsinki in their debut could be asking a bit much.
Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, second at the nationals, might have a better chance to challenge the Europeans. Ina went to four worlds with former partner Jason Dungjen (now one of the Hartsells' coaches) and Zimmerman also went in 1997, with Stephanie Stiegler.
Not surprisingly, the third team for the worlds, Laura Handy and J. Paul Binnebose, has virtually no international experience.
Such things can be expected in a post-Olympic year, but this will be an especially green U.S. squad.
At least it has Kwan.