LOS ANGELES -- Six was the magic number at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge brought their national title hauls to a half dozen.
While both now head to Salt Lake City, their prospects differ greatly for the Feb. 8-24 Olympics.
Kwan, back on her game after a troublesome season, will be a gold-medal favorite in Utah. Her performance at the Staples Center was her best since last March's world championships - and perhaps the best by any female skater this season.
It was even more impressive because of how strongly she was pushed by teen-agers Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes, who will go to their first Olympics.
"In any competition, especially nationals, everyone is skating well, and the tension, I swear, you could cut it with a knife," said Kwan, who now is second on the career list with six U.S. crowns. "It's not a time for socializing. You have a job to do and you must go out and perform.
"It will probably be the same in the Olympics. You have to stay focused and centered."
Few athletes are as accomplished in those areas as Kwan, the most dominant skater of her time. She has four world titles, but the one thing she does not own is an Olympic gold medal, having won silver in Nagano behind Tara Lipinski.
Russians Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya plus the two American youngsters figure to be Kwan's main challengers in Salt Lake City.
"She's definitely considered one of the top contenders for the gold medal," said Cohen, who missed last season with a back injury, but came back for her second runner-up finish behind Kwan at nationals in three years. "She's been to the Olympics and won so many world and national titles."
Kwan, Cohen and Hughes give the United States a shot at three spots in the top five and perhaps two Olympic medals.
"We've had some very strong American ladies in the Olympics," said veteran coach John Nicks, who works with Cohen. "But I've never seen a ladies team as strong as this in the past 10 Olympics."
The men's squad, led by 30-year-old Eldredge, also is strong. But Eldredge, who goes to his third Olympics, Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss aren't likely to challenge for gold. Or maybe even silver, given the strength of Russians Alexei Yagudin and Yevgeny Plushchenko.
Still, Eldredge's quest for a defining performance at the Olympics will be a compelling story line at the games. Anyone who takes a two-year break from this level of competition, comes back to finish second at nationals and third at worlds in 2001 - and then adds another U.S. crown in 2002 - deserves tremendous credit.
"It has been very encouraging for me that I came back," he said. "I won't say anything different, it has been more difficult because of my age to work as hard as you need to work. But I have had a goal and a dream of skating my best performances at the Olympic Games and that is something I have not done yet, and have another chance now to rectify it."
While Kwan has won her six U.S. championship since 1996, Eldredge got his first one in 1990. Eldredge is just one title behind Dick Button and Roger Turner, but emphatically says he won't be back. Kwan, who split with coach Frank Carroll in October, has made noises about competing for another four years.
By then, perhaps the United States will have medal contenders in pairs and ice dance.
Even though Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman won their third straight U.S. crown, their chances of reaching the podium in Salt Lake City are slim. A top-five placing would be impressive in Ina's third Olympics, but her first with Zimmerman at her side.
Four-time U.S. dance champs Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev have closed the gap on the Europeans, but not nearly enough to break into the medals mix. Besides, nationals was their first event of the season because Tchernyshev had shin splints.
"We always have in our eyes medals, the gold medal and being on top of the podium," Lang said. "But we don't dwell on it."
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