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Still the gold standard

DORTMUND, Germany -- Michelle Kwan has won so many world titles that the International Skating Union may have to devise a new prize for her. Like an Oscars-style lifetime achievement award, or a gold star for perfect attendance.

Kwan was a ponytailed 13-year-old when she turned up for her first world championships a decade ago in the wake of Wounded Knee, stepping in for Nancy Kerrigan after the Lillehammer Olympics. Now she's a 23-year-old aunt, the most bemedaled woman in US skating history, with more all but certain to come.

"I feel like a 6-year-old out there," says Kwan, who's chasing her sixth world title and ninth straight medal this week at the Westfalenhalle. "I think that's what keeps me going."

Unless her teammates have the week of their lives, though, Kwan could be the only star-spangled medalist here, which would be the weakest US showing since the 1994 wipeout at Chiba.

The men, who haven't been off the podium since then, were all but dead after yesterday's qualifying round, with two-time bronze medalist Michael Weiss tied for ninth, national champion Johnny Weir tied for 13th, and Matt Savoie tied for 19th.

The pairs were already out of contention after last night's short program, with Rena Inoue and John Baldwin sitting ninth and Connecticut entry Kathryn Orscher and Garrett Lucash 14th.

The best remaining chance belongs to dancers Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who have the steps and flair to claim the first US medal in that event in 19 years. Problem is, since Belbin is Canadian, they're not eligible for the Olympics.

A look at this week's events:

WOMEN: Kwan may have competed only once since last year's championships in Washington, but she's still the class of a thin global pool. The Russians are so weak that former champion Irina Slutskaya, who's been out of action for more than a year, was pressed into service.

"We don't have good girls right now," said the 25-year-old Slutskaya, who won the Olympic silver behind Sarah Hughes. Slutskaya may be suffering from vasculitis after an earlier struggle with pericarditis, pneumonia, and chronic asthmatic bronchitis, but she can't do much worse than Elena Sokolova and Viktoria Volchkova, who've had miserable seasons.

Kwan's top challengers will be teammates Sasha Cohen and Newton, Mass., native Jennifer Kirk plus the Japanese trio of two-time medalist Fumie Suguri, surprise national champion Miki Ando, and Shizuka Arakawa, plus Hungary's Julia Sebestyen, the European champion.

MEN: Evgeny Plushenko is skating with a torn right knee cartilage, but he's still the favorite to win his third title and Russia's seventh straight. "Everything is going according to plan," said Plushenko, who was on top alongside Canada's Emanuel Sandhu after the qualifying. With two-time runner-up Tim Goebel failing to make the team, the Yanks will need two flawless skates from Weiss to salvage a medal.

PAIRS: One tumble is all it took for China's two-time champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo to lose their grip on their crown amid the toughest field in years. The Russians, who haven't won the title since 2000 (their longest drought since the worlds were held here in 1964), are sitting pretty with Tatiana Totmianina-Maxim Marinin and former titlists Maria Petrova-Alexei Tikhonov 1-2 after the short program.

DANCE: Russia's Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, unbeaten all season, are favored ahead of Bulgaria's Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, but Belbin and Agosto could share the award stand.

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