ATLANTA -- Michelle Kwan can't quite put her finger on what keeps her around, long after everyone else her age left the party.
"I wish I knew," she said. "Brian Boitano said one day you just realize you're done competing. I don't think that time has come for me yet."
Good thing. After almost a decade at the top of her sport, she's still the best thing going. Displaying her trademark grace and elegance, plus an athleticism the mighty mites only wish they had, Kwan won her seventh straight title and eighth overall at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday night.
Only one of the sport's greats, Maribel Vinson, has more U.S. championships, with nine.
"I don't think it's about stacking medals," said Kwan, 23. "For me, it's about the performance. I feel like I've gained experience, not titles."
While her medals and titles will rank her among the sport's greatest, if not its best ever, it's Kwan's sustained excellence that sets her apart. Just 12 when she came to her first senior nationals back in 1993, she's grown from precocious jumping bean to elegant champion.
She has medaled at 11 straight nationals, breaking the record she shared with Theresa Weld Blanchard. She hasn't finished worse than third - in any competition - since 1995.
The rivals that pushed her have come and gone. Nicole Bobek, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes - they're all out of the sport now. Yet Kwan skates on. Her tenure's lasted so long that Nancy Kerrigan, the winner at that first nationals in 1993, was inducted into U.S. Figure Skating's Hall of Fame this weekend.
"I feel almost privileged to be sitting here next to her," bronze medalist Jennifer Kirk said as the audience laughed and Kwan squirmed. "I remember watching her first nationals at home. I can't believe I'm here sharing the podium with her. I look up to her so much."
And just when it seems as if Kwan might finally have met her match, she comes back with a performance for the ages.
Sasha Cohen started the year on a Kwanlike roll, winning her three Grand Prix events and beating Kwan for the first time at an invitational. Cohen faltered at the Grand Prix final, but she arrived at nationals with the confidence of a favorite. She beat Kwan in the short program, the first time since 2000 that Kwan had not won that portion of the competition at nationals.
Though Cohen faltered in the free skate, botching two of her jumps, Kwan didn't need the help. She was so good she won this title on her own.
Her jumps were as sure and strong at the end of her four-minute program as at the beginning. The quickness of her jumps, their flow, their landings - everything was so perfect it could be sold as an instructional video.
When she began her footwork, it was as if she jolted the arena with electricity. Her hands aloft, Kwan flew down the ice in a victory lap. With 30 seconds still to go in her program, the audience was already rising to its feet.
"I just let it fly. I was like, 'AHHHHH!" Kwan said, laughing. "I felt the audience skate with me at the end. It was a crazy experience because you can feel the energy and the vibe."
But even she seemed stunned when her marks flashed: seven perfect 6.0s for artistry.
"Skating a performance like that - it was amazing," Kwan said. "The marks were like the cherry on top of a perfect sundae. I can't ask for more."
And she's not done. Unsure a few months ago if she would even be at nationals, she's thrown herself back into training with a vengeance. She hired a new coach, Rafael Arutunian, and left Los Angeles for the seclusion of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where she trained as a teenager.
She all but committed to the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, this week, saying her chances of being there are "very high." While many will say it's because the Olympic gold is the only prize that eludes her, Kwan insists she's just doing what she loves.
There will come a time when she wants to stop. But that day hasn't arrived yet.
"Essentially, you just follow your heart," she said. "Right now, it's leading the way."
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