A year ago Michelle Kwan told interviewers she wanted to be a
legend, like Dorothy Hamill or Peggy Fleming. Then a 4'8" roof
named Tara Lipinski fell on her, snatching away her national and
world titles. But legends, like dreams, don't die, and last week
at the U.S. nationals in Philadelphia, the same city where
Fleming won her fifth American championship en route to the 1968
Olympic gold medal, the 17-year-old Kwan finally skated like one.
So breathtaking were her performances in Thursday's short
program and Saturday's free skate that Kwan earned 15 scores
(out of a possible 18) of 6.0 from the judges for her artistic
presentation--by far the most ever awarded in a U.S.
championship to a woman or a man. Even to the most
discriminating eyes, she was perfect. Ron Pfenning, who had
never given a 6.0 to a singles skater in more than 20 years of
judging, gave Kwan two. "She floated," marveled another judge.
"She enjoyed every second. She savored it."
Indeed, there was such a look of peace and beatitude on Kwan's
face during her long program, which was skated to music from
William Alwyn's Lyra Angelica, that she left the impression of a
girl skating in a secret garden, rather than a competitor
performing in a packed arena (18,000-plus) with the U.S. title
and a berth in the Nagano Olympics at stake. The difficulty of
her moves--seven triple jumps, each landed solidly; a layback
spin followed by a camel spin in the opposite direction;
elongated spirals--was masked by the joy so evident in her
demeanor. "When I hear that music, it always reminds me of
angels and clouds," Kwan said afterward. "That's what I was
thinking of while skating. That I'm free, and I'm going to cloud
The audience was already there, for although Kwan gave the only
unforgettable performance of the evening, it had been preceded
by a pair of sparkling routines by Lipinski, who climbed to
second after having fallen in her short program, and 20-year-old
Nicole Bobek, the 1995 U.S. champion, who delighted her ardent
fans by finishing third. Those three make up one of the
strongest ladies teams the U.S. has ever sent to an Olympics.
"From the performances we saw tonight," said Richard Callaghan,
Lipinski's coach, "we could be one-two-three in Nagano."
(Russia's Irina Slutskaya and Germany's Tanja Szewczenko will be
the primary roadblocks to an American sweep.)
The same can't be said for the men. Todd Eldredge took home a
fifth national title, the most since Dick Button won seven
between 1946 and '52. But it wasn't an inspired win, which bodes
ill for his chances in Nagano, where he won't have the benefit
of what was a panel of apparently smitten judges in
Philadelphia. Eldredge, 26, is a likable guy, a good citizen
and, having finished second, first and second in the last three
world championships, is without question the best U.S. hope for
an Olympic medal in the men's event. All those are bankable
chips with U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) judges, and
Eldredge cashed them in on Thursday after dealing out a long
program so unimaginative that it was like watching him skate a 4
1/2-minute training drill. Crossover, crossover, jump.
Crossover, crossover, raise arms. Crossover, crossover, spin.
Yes, he was smooth. Yes, he was flowing. Lord, he was boring.
Even a last-second triple Axel and Eldredge's unexpected and
welcome attempt to land his first competitive quadruple toe
loop, which resulted in a crash landing, failed to enliven the
insipid program. Yet when the marks came in, the judges--a.k.a.
the Todd Squad--handed Eldredge six 5.9s for artistic
presentation. Call it a good-luck-in-Nagano gift after a long
and estimable career.
Second place, for the second year in a row, went to Michael
Weiss of Fairfax, Va., who won the crowd, if not the crown, by
attempting the first quadruple Lutz in competition. A
charismatic performer and dynamic jumper, the 21-year-old Weiss
is appealingly different: athletic, self-assured bordering on
cocky, and married. But Weiss's relentless pursuit of the quad
is, from a skating standpoint, the main thing that sets him
apart from his peers. He seems to understand what Eldredge may
not--that no Olympic gold medal will ever again be won by a man
who doesn't try a four-revolution jump. At last year's nationals
Weiss appeared to have succeeded in becoming the first American
to land a quadruple toe loop cleanly in competition, but after a
review of the tape, USFSA officials declared his free foot had
touched down on the landing, nullifying the jump. Rather than
repeating the quad toe loop this year, Weiss raised the bar (a
Lutz is more difficult than a toe loop because it requires a
skater to change directions after launching the jump). "Everyone
else is doing the quad toe," says Weiss, referring to Canada's
Elvis Stojko and Russia's Ilia Kulik and Alexei Yagudin, "so I
made it a goal to be the first to land the quad Lutz."
Weiss lands only about one in 10 quad Lutzes cleanly in
practice, but he knew the judges would never put him ahead of
Eldredge without it. As in boxing, you don't beat the champion
by decision. It must be a knockout. So, skating to Beethoven's
overture to Egmont, Weiss dramatically circled the ice on
Thursday, gained speed, assumed a Lutz position and leaped. He
completed the requisite four revolutions and came down to a
thunderous roar. But a spray of white kicked up, the sign of a
two-footed landing. Still, it was an electrifying attempt, and
he followed it with a triple Axel-triple toe combination
(outdoing Eldredge's triple Axel-double toe). A botched
triple-flip combination and a couple of jarring landings cost
Weiss the title, as seven of the nine judges placed him below
Eldredge despite giving Weiss generally higher technical marks.
"I thought I might have won," Weiss said, unembittered and
thrilled to be heading to Japan, the country where his father,
Greg Weiss, competed in gymnastics for the U.S. at the 1964
Tokyo Games. "The audience was booing the marks, so obviously
they felt I should have too. That's all I needed to hear."
But all that was dwarfed in significance by Kwan's dance with
perfection on Saturday night. Most amazing, perhaps, was that as
recently as the day after Christmas, Kwan had considered
withdrawing from the event. She was still bothered by the pain
from a stress fracture in the second toe of her left foot that
was diagnosed in November. She had spent most of that month in a
cast and been forced to withdraw from the Champions Series Final
in Munich on Dec. 19-21, which was won by Lipinski. In the days
leading to the nationals, jumps propelled by the left foot, like
the toe loop and Salchow, still caused stabs of pain.
Kwan struggled in practices early in the week, falling regularly
while attempting to land her triple flip. Lipinski, who had
spurted in the last year to 4'10" and added five pounds, to a
good 80, seemed to have regained her form after early-season
setbacks at Skate America and Trophee Lalique, and she'd added
elements of artistry to her technically superior style. In
practice Lipinski hardly missed a jump all week.
But in the short program, Lipinski tripped on the triple
flip--suddenly, shockingly--while Kwan, coming off a bad night's
sleep attributable to nerves, skated surely to Rachmaninoff's
Finale, earning seven 6.0s. "It wasn't so much what she did, as
the way she did it," her coach, Frank Carroll, said of Kwan.
"She had a look of ease in her face, an aura. It was one of her
Lipinski, fourth after the short program, was "devastated," said
Callaghan. She was also angry, somewhat humbled and absolutely
determined to skate a superior long program and earn her way
onto the Olympic team. It has been a tough year so far for the
15-year-old Lipinski, much as 1997 was for Kwan. As difficult as
it is to live up to potential, living up to expectations is
harder. Lipinski would be well served if she can rediscover the
joy in her skating, win or lose.
Saturday was a start. Her seven triple jumps, which included two
triple-triple combinations, propelled Lipinski past Bobek and
fourth-place finisher Tonia Kwiatkowski, and put the shine back
in her young eyes.
But Lipinski does not yet have the grace of Kwan, whose every
gesture is artfully described. Kwan's three-position spin
combination--layback to camel to sit spin--is as remarkable a
sequence as her triple loop to "falling leaf" turn (in which she
flutters like a leaf dropping to the ice) to double toe loop.
The long program she performed in the nationals, choreographed
by Lori Nichol, was filled with so many subtle treasures that it
will be revisited on tape for years to come. That glow emanating
from Philadelphia last weekend? It was a communal smile of
approval from the legends of skating, past and present,
welcoming Kwan into their ranks.