Sasha Cohen glided with ease to the top of the standings at Lalique Trophy on Friday, skating a lyrical, error-free short program.
A 19-year-old picture of elegance, Cohen flew through her opening triple lutz-double toe loop jump, landing softly and then moving right into a triple flip at high speed.
The American also displayed her trademark flexibility with spellbinding spirals, forward and backward, in which she extended her leg 180-degrees in the air. Afterward, she credited her smooth performance with having learned to deal with the pressures of competition.
"I felt good out there, and I'm really learning how to compete well," Cohen said. "I can count on myself."
Facing a field of unpolished women competitors, Cohen is almost guaranteed the gold when the event concludes with the long program on Saturday. Her closest rivals are Shizuka Arakawa of Japan and Julia Sebestyen of Hungary.
Neither Arakawa nor Sebestyen has made a significant mark on the international skating circuit, but both skated admirably Friday. Arakawa came in second and Sebestyen was third.
In the men's event, reigning world champion Evgeni Plushenko won the short program despite skating without his usual flamboyance and nearly crashing to the ice on a jump.
Plushenko is a great overall skater, but his routine on Friday was flat -- he put his hand down to keep from hitting the ice after a quadruple toe loop jump, and his spins and footwork looked labored.
American champion Michael Weiss, whose has been haunted by inconsistency, performed without a fall or major fumble. But he skated too conservatively, forsaking a planned quadruple-triple jump combination for a triple-triple instead.
The strategy hurt him. Weiss had been a favorite in the event, but he finished third behind newcomer Daisuke Takahashi of Japan, a high-school student whose inspiring performance included an effortless triple flip-triple toe loop jump combination.
Frenchman Brian Joubert -- who has an impressive repertory of technical skills -- fell on a standard triple axel and likely won't be a threat to Plushenko or Takahashi.
In the pairs event, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin of Russia won their short program, ahead of Chinese skaters Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang. The US national titleholders, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, were third.
Bulgarian ice dancers Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski, who placed third at the world championships this year, were in first place after the original dance Friday.
Somewhat oddly, France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder were second even though both smacked the ice after he lifted her up at the end of their program and then tripped. It was by far the worst error committed by the 11 couples in the event. Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon were third.