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Into The Light A lifetime of dedication gave Michelle Kwan of the U.S. the strength to step out of the shadows of doubt and move to the edge of perfection

Feb. 09, 1998
Feb. 09, 1998

Table of Contents
Feb. 9, 1998

Nagano '98

Into The Light A lifetime of dedication gave Michelle Kwan of the U.S. the strength to step out of the shadows of doubt and move to the edge of perfection

Everything fell into place at the moment when everything seemed
to be most up in the air, when the questions about Michelle
Kwan's injured foot, her training and her confidence were
swarming about her like so many wasps. Was she in pain? Had the
stress fracture in the second toe of her left foot fully healed?
After having been in a cast most of November, would she be in
shape for the U.S. nationals in Philadelphia and ready to
compete? If she withdrew, as she'd been forced to do from the
Champions Series Final in mid-December, would she be guaranteed
a spot on the Olympic team?

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1998 issue Original Layout

The questions gave rise to doubts. Why is this happening to me?
Kwan asked herself during Christmastime. Why am I struggling
with the triple flip, a jump I've been landing since I was 11?

Kwan didn't sleep well the night before her short program at the
nationals on Jan. 8, brooding over all these concerns. Then she
overslept and missed her morning practice. She never missed
practice. In a life that had been meticulously scripted to lead
up to a gold medal performance at the 1998 Olympics, suddenly
nothing was going as planned.

Then, the transformation. "Most skaters are nervous and tight
waiting around before they go out," says Lori Nichol, who
choreographs Kwan's programs, "but Michelle didn't look like
that at all. She was completely living in the moment. She didn't
just want to perform--she was reveling in it. I could tell when
she stepped on the ice that this was going to be something
special."

Under the most pressure-filled of circumstances, before a
national television audience, with a spot on the Olympic team
and a national championship at stake, the 17-year-old Kwan
skated with an assurance and grace that had some judges in tears
and others holding their breath. Kwan earned seven 6.0s in
artistic presentation for her short program. Two nights later,
when most observers assumed she would settle back to earth, she
was awarded eight more perfect artistic marks for her long
program. Sixes are rare in skating--at least two of the judges
at the nationals had never given one to a singles skater--and
Kwan's total of 15 was by far the most ever given to anyone at
the nationals. She had redefined the horizons of her sport.

Kwan's showing in Philadelphia was akin to Secretariat's winning
by 31 lengths at the Belmont or Tiger Woods's running away from
the field at the Masters by 12 strokes. "It was one of the most
magnificent short programs I've ever seen," says Carol Heiss
Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic champion, who is now a top coach. "But
then to do it again in the long--both those performances have to
be said in the same breath--I can't remember anyone doing that."

"I was crying during her long program, sure," says Nichol. "The
people around me were crying, too. That's what you hope to do
with a program. They were enraptured by what Michelle was doing
on the ice."

"She has a unique style," says Linda Leaver, who is Brian
Boitano's coach. "It's ethereal and feminine. She seems to float
over the ice. She hovers and skims, so you aren't aware of her
digging into the ice to get the height that she does on her
jumps. Michelle did one of the most technically difficult
programs out there, but that's not what you took away from it.
She made the difficult look easy."

By raising the bar so high so close to the Olympics, the 5'2",
106-pound Kwan is back where, two years ago, she was expected to
be on the eve of the Nagano Games: the prohibitive favorite to
win the gold medal. Fifteen-year-old Tara Lipinski, who snatched
away the U.S. and world titles when Kwan faltered in 1997,
becomes just one more underdog hoping to capitalize on a
mistake. Yes, injury or illness or an untimely fall could open
the door for Lipinski or perhaps Russia's Irina Slutskaya or
Germany's Tanja Szewczenko. But irrefutably the Olympics now
shape up as a battle between Kwan and herself.

It has been that way most of Kwan's life, so great was her
talent as a child. Kwan started skating at age five at a rink
near her family's house in Torrance, Calif. Her sister, Karen,
who is two years older, started skating about the same time and
also showed promise. Before long, their parents, Danny and
Estella, were driving them two hours every weekend to the famous
training center at Lake Arrowhead, where the family stayed in a
friend's vacation home, and Michelle and Karen took lessons as
often as the family could afford. When Michelle watched Boitano
win the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, she vowed to skate in
the '94 Games. She would be all of 13.

Estella and Danny wanted to do all they could to help Michelle
fulfill her dreams, but they had one big concern. "For me it was
a money issue," recalls Danny, 49, a chain-smoking,
philosophical man who before taking early retirement in 1995
worked as a systems analyst for Pacific Bell by day and then
helped out at the Golden Pheasant, the family's Chinese
restaurant. (Estella, who is from Hong Kong, also worked at the
restaurant until she moved to Arrowhead. The restaurant, which
was sold last summer, was owned by Michelle's paternal
grandparents, who, like her father, were born in China. Her
grandparents speak mainly Cantonese, a dialect that Michelle can
understand but does not speak fluently.)

"Skating cost a lot of money," Danny says, "and it was a burden
for everyone in the family. We were taking the kids skating from
five to eight a.m., and then I'd go to work, and they'd go to
school. I told them, I don't mind doing it, but you have to make
a commitment. In five years you can become a senior skater. We
always had that as the goal. So every six months we scheduled
tests."

There are eight levels in women's singles skating and eight
tests to pass to move from the lowest level, pre-preliminary, to
the highest, senior ladies. Most girls spend a year at each
level, mastering the requisite jumps and spins and spirals. Not
Michelle. "Michelle was going faster than anyone," recalls
Karen, who competed in the 1995, '96 and '97 nationals, but now
spends most of her time concentrating on her studies at Boston
University, where she is a sophomore. "We'd go to Lake Arrowhead
for the weekend, which was inspirational, since there was always
someone famous skating there, and every weekend she'd learn a
new jump. To her it was like walking. We had no vacations. No
days off. We skated on Christmas Day. One day I'd be tired. The
next day Michelle would be tired. But Dad would tell us, It's
your responsibility to do it even when you don't want to. He
taught us we had to commit."

At one point, with skating expenses growing, Danny offered his
daughters $50 for every day they didn't skate, figuring it would
save him money. Safest $50 he never spent. Michelle skated with
a sore throat, runny nose, the flu, even chicken pox. Without a
coach at her side, wearing a borrowed dress and secondhand
skates, she won a junior regional competition when she was 10.
That year Estella and the girls moved to Lake Arrowhead and,
helped out by a scholarship from the Ice Castle International
Skating Foundation, Michelle and Karen began taking regular
private lessons for $25 an hour three days a week. Danny never
missed a practice. He would stay at Lake Arrowhead much of the
time, watch the girls skate before school, then drive two hours
to work and, later, two hours back.

Frank Carroll was the coach. A respected, punctilious mentor,
Carroll had plenty of experience with amateur champions, having
groomed Linda Fratianne and Christopher Bowman. When he took
Michelle to her first national junior competition, in 1992, she
finished a disappointing ninth. Carroll wanted her to stay a
junior until she gained more maturity and polish. But Michelle
had all the jumps necessary to compete at the senior level, and
in May '92, two months before her 12th birthday, unbeknownst to
Carroll, she passed her senior test--four years and 10 months
after Danny had made it a goal for her to move to seniors within
five years. Carroll was furious. "It was an honest mistake,"
Danny says. "We'd only known Frank four months, and I thought
Michelle had told him about it. The only thing she wanted was to
be a senior and compete against the big guys."

Carroll told his prodigy she had to work doubly hard if she
didn't want to embarrass herself in seniors, which was like
asking a swallow to fly. Michelle bought into the program. "I
like my schedule to be jam-packed," she says. "I didn't want to
finish my homework and watch four hours of TV. I wanted to get
to the 1994 Olympics."

Her father had told her that a person's life was like a house.
You couldn't have all the windows open at once. For Michelle,
only two windows were flung wide: her education (now a senior in
high school, she has a 3.4 grade point average and hopes to
attend Harvard and study law) and her skating. The window to her
social life was open only a crack. The window to waterskiing,
which Danny deemed too dangerous but Michelle longed to try,
wasn't open at all. "Skating takes up 70 percent of my time,"
Michelle says. "School about 25 percent. Having fun and talking
to my friends, five percent. It's hard. I envy other kids a lot
of things, but I get a guilt trip when I'm not training."

Kwan thrived under Carroll's disciplined guidance. His rules,
for example, permitted no stopping in the middle of a program in
practice, not even after a fall. In 1993 Kwan, then 12, got
attention by becoming the youngest senior competitor at
nationals in 20 years (she finished sixth), then winning the
U.S. Olympic Festival. The Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding tempest
occurred at the '94 nationals, where Kwan finished second to
Harding after Kerrigan was forced to withdraw. The U.S. Figure
Skating Association named Kerrigan to the Olympic team anyway,
with the 13-year-old Kwan as first alternate. Had the U.S.
Olympic Committee, fearful of a lawsuit, not backed off its
efforts to throw Harding off the team, Kwan would have achieved
the goal she'd set for herself at age seven.

As an eighth-grader Kwan left school to be privately tutored. In
addition she hired her own manager, Shep Goldberg, further
signifying that the big time was just around the bend. In 1995
Kwan finished second at the nationals again, this time behind
Nicole Bobek, but improved to fourth at the world championships.
Then came 1995-96, Kwan's breakthrough season. Skating in the
role of the temptress Salome, wearing makeup and a braided-bun
hairstyle designed to make her appear more mature to the judges,
she skated far beyond her 15 years, winning both the nationals
and the worlds, at which she scored her first two 6.0s. She
needed them, too. China's Lu Chen had scored a pair of 6.0s
before Kwan's long program, leaving no room for error. It was an
early sign that as limpid as Kwan appears on the ice, under
pressure she has the heart of a champion.

When Kwan came to the 1997 nationals in Nashville, she was, in
her words "on a roll." She'd won nine straight competitions in
11 months and 14 of 15 since the fall of '95, and was being
compared to such legends of the sport as Dorothy Hamill and
Peggy Fleming. But superb skating is never as easy as the great
ones make it appear, and early in her long program Kwan fell on
the back end of a combination jump. Then she panicked. She
stumbled out of her next jump and fell a second time. The
14-year-old Lipinski, skating flawlessly, won.

Although it was a shocking upset, almost everyone assumed Kwan
would bounce back. Instead, Lipinski beat her again at the
prestigious Champions Series Final and a third time at the '97
worlds in Lausanne, Switzerland. In each event Kwan, who would
later refer to that period as her "coma," made critical errors
while the tiny Lipinski, slightly superior technically but
artistically far behind, skated cleanly. "Michelle lost her
confidence after the nationals," says Karen. "That was her first
bad skate in two or three years, and it didn't help that other
people began comparing her to Tara. Michelle had never been
compared to anyone before. She'd always been the one who was
coming up."

Kwan found herself skating not with an eye on improving but to
maintain her standing at the top, so she could win the gold
medal in 1998. "She loved the sport until she was about 15,"
says Danny, "but then it became the podium and winning that she
loved. She lost the purity of a kid."

"I'm glad last year happened," Michelle says. "Everything had
happened so fast, I didn't appreciate what I'd already done. I
didn't enjoy it. I was so worried about winning, it was as if I
was caught up in my own web. I kept asking myself, Why am I here
if I don't love it? Why am I torturing myself? It's supposed to
be fun, and I thought I'd die if I didn't win."

Kwan found herself in this desperate frame of mind at last
year's worlds. She had failed to skate cleanly in the short
program and stood in fourth place with little chance of catching
Lipinski. Tugging on her shoelaces in the dressing room after
the short program, Kwan smacked herself in the face when one
broke. She started to cry, but in a moment the sobs turned to
laughter. It had been an emotional week. Bobek's coach, Carlo
Fassi, had died of a heart attack, and Scott Hamilton had
announced he was being treated for cancer. Suddenly Kwan
realized that a fall on a combination jump wasn't life or death.
Neither was winning. The key for her, she began to understand,
was to rediscover the joy she'd felt while skating. When she won
the long program two days later, finishing second overall to
Lipinski, she described herself as "the happiest silver medalist
ever."

Recharged and refocused, Kwan is on another roll now. Both times
she has faced Lipinski this season, in Skate America and at the
nationals, she has easily beaten her. Lipinski is now the one
who is falling on jumps she routinely landed before she was
champion, while Kwan is skating with the unfettered delight of a
kid. In both her short program, performed to Rachmaninoff's
Finale, and her long program, skated to William Alwyn's Lyra
Angelica, Kwan portrays herself, rather than a character like
Salome. "We'd focused on the dramatic side of her personality,"
says Nichol, who says her "spine went nuts" when she first first
heard Lyra Angelica, which she immediately knew was the perfect
music for Kwan. "Frank and I had seen that peaceful quality of
hers in practice. We just hadn't given her a vehicle to express
it."

They have now, and after her dance with perfection in
Philadelphia the only question is whether Kwan can do it again.
"Michelle's capable of doing these types of performances more
than once," says Heiss Jenkins. "She's mentally so strong, she
could do it all over again in Nagano."

"She found something out about herself in Philadelphia," says
Nichol. "She learned she could feel serenity and joy on the ice,
in front of a crowd, in an incredibly pressurized moment. And
she did it after having been off the ice almost a month from her
injury. She knows now that she can deal with anything, good or
bad. She's saying, I was good--now how much better can I be?
We've only seen the beginning of what this girl can do."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK COVER A Very Cool Guide to the Winter Olympics The Gold Standard Michelle KwanCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK BARRE BELLE After losing confidence in her skating last year, Kwan, at Lake Arrowhead, has rediscovered the beauty of her sport. [Michelle Kwan on skates in dance studio]COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BLACK GROWING PAINS After Kwan was ninth in her first nationals, as a junior in 1992, Carroll advised her not to move up to seniors. She did anyhow. [Young Michelle Kwan and Frank Carroll]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN SPIN CONTROL Kwan's flawless performances deep-sixed the field at nationals. [Michelle Kwan skating]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK GO FISH Michelle finds nothing (except waterskiing, which is off-limits) better than a day on Lake Arrowhead with dad and brother, Ron. [Michelle Kwan, Danny Kwan and Robert Kwan on boat]
"Skating cost a lot of money," says Danny Kwan, "and it was a
burden for everyone in the family."
Kwan's showing in Philadelphia was akin to Secretariat's winning
by 31 lengths at the Belmont.
"Skating takes up 70 percent of my time," says Kwan, who admits
she gets "a guilt trip when I'm not training."