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Skaters from 41 Nations Compete in World Figure Skating Championships in Washington - 2003-03-25

The 2003 World Figure Skating Championships opened Monday night in the nation's capital.

Nearly 200 skaters from 41 nations are here to compete. The largest delegation is from Russia, which has three entries in each of the four events - men's, women's, pairs and ice dancing.

However, Russia's reigning women's world champion, Irina Slutskaya, withdrew to stay home with her mother, who has a kidney illness.

Many believe that opens the way for a possible American sweep of the medals, something that has not happened at a world meet since 1991. Olympic gold medallist Sarah Hughes is competing, along with four-time World Champion Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, who was fourth at last year's Olympics. The women begin their qualifying Wednesday.

The first medals to be awarded will be in pairs, Wednesday night. After Monday night's short program, the leaders were Russians Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin. That is no surprise. They have won all six events they have entered this season, including the European championships.

In second place are defending champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China. Russians Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov are third. There were no Americans in the top 10 in the pairs freeskate program.

With the war in Iraq not supported by France, French pairs skaters Sarah Abitol and Stephane Bernadis, who are in ninth place, say they were somewhat uneasy about how they would be treated by the American home crowd.

Bernadis notes they were relieved when they took the ice. "We are happy because the crowd was really nice to us," he said. "We were a little bit afraid with everything that's going on with France and the war and everything. So, we were happy that the crowd was great with [good to] us."

According to Bernadis, the French government left it up to the skaters whether or not they wanted to travel to the United States for the World Championships. He added, now that they are here, they have no major fears.

"I think the security of the committee is really great," he said. "They put bodyguards everywhere. Nobody can come in the elevator without a pass, so for me it's good. I'm happy with this kind of thing. I feel comfortable like this."

But Stephane Bernadis notes the conflict in Iraq is on everyone's minds.

"Of course figure skating now is not really the most important thing for the moment, but maybe we can bring a little bit of a dream with all the bad things that are in Iraq," he said.

This is no extra security for French figure skating team members here at the World Championships. They have just been told by their delegation to be careful.