It didn't have to be perfect. Michelle Kwan nearly made it so, anyway. With four perfect 6. 0 scores, Kwan sailed into U.S. figure skating immortality last night, winning her...

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PORTLAND — It didn’t have to be perfect. Michelle Kwan nearly made it so, anyway.



With four more perfect 6.0 scores, Kwan soared into U.S. figure-skating immortality last night, winning her eighth straight national title and ninth overall, tying the record of legendary skater Maribel Vinson, who won her last in 1937.



Kwan finished her program with a wave and a visible sigh of relief, drawing thunderous applause from a Rose Garden crowd of 13,286. The 24-year-old Californian bested frequent runner-up Sasha Cohen, 20, who once again cracked under the pressure of a top-level final.



Rising star Kimmie Meissner, 15, of Baltimore, finished third on a night that saw defending men’s champion Johnny Weir, 20, slip by former champion Timothy Goebel, 24, for the men’s title.



Skating last and clad in gold, Kwan lit up the ice-storm-stricken Rose City with a long program marked by five smooth, flawless triple jumps and her trademark soaring, change-edge spiral.



She skated to “Bolero” in a program choreographed by Christopher Dean, who has more than a passing familiarity with the music. His previous interpretation, performed with pairs partner Jayne Torvill, won the gold medal at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, and is considered one of the classic performances in skating history.



















U.S. Figure Skating Championships


Rose Garden, Portland





The event:
The national figure-skating championships is the world’s largest single skating competition, drawing as many as 150,000 spectators to a week-long program. It’s a major launching point for the 2006 Winter Olympics 13 months from now in Turin, Italy.



Today: Free-skate exhibition.



“It was not my best performance,” said Kwan, explaining that the finish of her program wasn’t perfectly timed with the music. “But I had a lot of fun out there.”



Cohen, skating to “The Nutcracker” immediately before Kwan, touched one hand down on a triple-toe jump early in her program and later fell during the entry to a triple lutz.



Her second-rung spot on the podium below Kwan is familiar territory. She has bested Kwan once — at last year’s world championships, where Cohen finished second, Kwan third.



But the mercurial Cohen has yet to win a U.S. or world title. She withdrew from Grand Prix events this season because of back problems, but rebounded in time to stick close enough to Kwan to win after Thursday’s short programs.



Not close enough.



“I was happy I was able to skate full-out,” she said. “Of course, I’m disappointed not to nail all the jumps, like I have been in practice.”



Her miscues were serious enough to create brief speculation that Cohen actually might be demoted to third behind Meissner, last year’s national junior champion and clearly a U.S. star of the future.



Meissner’s impressive, seven-triple-jump free skate included a true rarity — a triple-axel jump. The last one landed in a championship meet was performed by Tonya Harding, in 1991 — when Meissner was barely 2 years old.



“Actually I just started landing them last week,” the blushing high-school sophomore said. “I just thought, here’s a good place to try it.”



Meissner, fifth after the short program, normally would earn her a spot on the U.S. world-championship squad with her third-place finish. But she’s too young: The spot will go to fourth-place finisher Jennifer Kirk, 20, sending Meissner to the junior worlds.



Kwan, who called her ninth national title “surreal,” said she would celebrate only briefly, then shift gears for the next big task — adapting her programs for the new scoring system she’ll face for the first time at the World Championships in March.



That event, which Kwan has won five times, might serve a larger purpose this year — determining whether she will compete in next year’s Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.









DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES


Johnny Weir spins on the ice during his long program last night. He rallied to successfully defend his U.S. men’s title.

Kwan has skipped two seasons’ worth of Grand Prix events, where the International Skating Union’s new point system — rushed into official use after the judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics — has been tested.



The new system, which rewards riskier programs filled with more footwork and bigger jumps, might work against Kwan, who long has set the standard for artistry under the current, 6.0-based scoring system.



But she and her coaches already are making plans to adjust, she said.



Kwan’s scores for technical merit were 5.7s and 5.8s, not as high as some competitors. Her five triple jumps were two shy of Meissner. But she more than compensated with all 5.9s and 6.0s for presentation.



She leaves Portland with a record 57 perfect scores in her career — 42 of them in national championships. The four she received for presentation in her free skate will be the last awarded in a major U.S. competition.



How does that feel?



“Sweeeet!” she said.



The night was equally sweet for repeat men’s champion Weir, who charged from second place after the short program to upend Goebel in the men’s free skate.



Weir collected five perfect 6.0 presentation scores of his own.



“Sixes are great,” he said. But, he added, “As far as the artistic side of the program, I know I can skate it better, and I know I have skated it better.”



Goebel, the Salt Lake City bronze medalist and two-time world championship silver medalist, said he was pleased just to be back on the podium — and back on the American team for the Worlds.



Joining Weir and Goebel on the U.S. team in Moscow will be Evan Lysacek, 19, of Chicago, who finished third.



Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com.