NICE, France -- Michelle Kwan abandoned all inhibitions in the best free program of her career and won her third World Figure Skating title Saturday.
She vanquished critics and two Russian rivals who were in better position to win the gold by pushing through all seven triple jumps.
Both Kwan's short and long programs were the most technically difficult she's ever skated, and she dedicated the six weeks since the U.S. Championships to adding more challenging triple jumps to both. During the free program, Kwan was the only skater to hit a triple-triple combination.
The triple toe-triple toe was critical in lifting Kwan above Irina Slutskaya, who won silver, and last year's champion, Maria Butyrskaya in third.
Coming off the ice, a breathless Kwan was ecstatic.
"That felt sooo good!" Kwan exclaimed. "I never felt like that. Every time I went to jump, I was, 'Oh jeez! Oh, jeez! A jump!"'
Then motioning to coach Frank Carroll, she said: "His last words of encouragement were, 'Let go!"'
She did. She nailed five triple jumps within the first 1 minute, 30 seconds, of the four-minute free program -- including the new combination. Still, she saved a difficult triple lutz for last.
"This is the first time I ever pushed and pushed and pushed through the four minutes," Kwan said. "I never felt as fast. There are times when you get a little tired in your program ... I didn't want to come off the ice and say I still had some energy left. This time I wanted to use up all my energy."
Kwan's victory was especially dear since her chances of winning the title depended not only on a strong program, but lapses by Butyrskaya and Slutskaya, who were 1-2 after the short.
Kwan, the 1996 and '98 champion, skated first, and the judges left ample room in the scores for both Russians to place higher, giving Kwan two 5.6s, three 5.7s and four 5.8s in the technical marks. Her artistic marks were 5.8s and 5.9s, rewarding Kwan's hallmark grace, which provided an interesting contrast with the dark and moody soundtrack to The Red Violin.
The Russians didn't bomb, but neither did they match Kwan's technical caliber.
As they skated, the monitor showed Kwan, dressed in a gray workout suit, laying flat on the floor in the warmup area lost in thought.
"I said, `You just skated the best program of your life. Now no matter what happens, just be happy, be happy, be happy. ..."' she said. "It was a long 30 minutes."
Butyrskaya ceded the title when she badly two-footed her attempted triple-triple combination and scaled down the triple salchow to a double.
Slutskaya didn't manage the vaunted triple-triple combinations that she intended and needed to win, but her spirit was evident when she improvised a second combination, which again was a triple-double. Returning to worlds after failing to make the Russian team last year and sitting out major international competitions, the 21-year-old was favored by two judges.
"I didn't skate bad or good," Slutskaya said. "It's a shame I didn't do my planned combinations."
In her second worlds, 14-year-old Sarah Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., finished fifth, behind France's Vanessa Gusmeroli, after she stepped out of two triple-triples in an ambitious free program.
"I'm pleased with how I held myself together," said Hughes, the youngest competitor at the championships. "I came here and wanted a medal. I tried everything that was in my program."'