Skating after an American at an Olympics in the U.S. cannot be the most confidence-boosting experience, especially for a skater from Russia. "Oh, it was so hard to skate after Michelle [Kwan]," said Irina Slutskaya, a favorite in ladies' figure skating. Dodging the love tokens strewn on the ice from Kwan's fans was the least of Slutskaya's worries. Because of the skate order, the 23-year-old Muscovite's performance would determine whether Kwan or Sarah Hughes glided away with gold. If Slutskaya finished ahead of Kwan in the long program, Hughes would win; if she finished behind Kwan, Kwan would win.
Slutskaya, of course, wasn't aware of the mathematical import of her Tosca program. A talented jumper, she was forced by nerves to scale back a planned triple-triple combination in the first minute of her program, and she fought valiantly to hold the landing on her double axel. Her performance was good enough for silver to
Hughes' gold, and while she was not happy with her scores for presentation, she was thrilled to be on the podium. Just two years ago, she considered retiring when she failed to qualify for the World Championships. And now? "I feel like a star."