SHE'S GOT NEXT
Michelle Kwan won her third title at the U.S. championships,
but 13-year-old runner-up Naomi Nari Nam stole the show
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1999 issue
"It's always somebody," Danny Kwan said with a tortured sigh,
minutes after his daughter Michelle won her second straight
national championship and her third in four years. Why, in the
moment of victory, was her dad wearing the long face? He had
just glimpsed the future--he and 6,571 fans in Salt Lake City's
Delta Center, plus a national television audience--and it must
have looked suspiciously like the past.
The past, of course, was Kwan-slayer Tara Lipinski, who in 1996
burst on the scene at age 13, dethroned Kwan as the U.S. and
world champ at 14, then snatched the gold medal from Kwan at the
Nagano Olympics at 15. Before Kwan could say "Tara's tutu," her
young nemesis had high-tailed it to the pros, leaving Kwan no
one to compete with but herself.
Or so people thought until last Saturday night's breakthrough by
another tiny (4'8") 13-year-old, Naomi Nari Nam of Irvine,
Calif. "I've been around so long, I'm not easy to impress," said
former U.S. Figure Skating Association president Morry
Stillwell, "but before she had even finished, I was jumping out
of my chair."
He wasn't alone. By the time Nari Nam was midway through her
closing combination spin, the crowd was roaring approval from
its feet. The doll-like Nari Nam had landed five triple jumps
and unleashed an array of breathtaking spins, all the while
dazzling fans with a natural, high-voltage smile. "She enjoys
audiences," says her coach, John Nicks. "She's extremely musical
and has an originality that's very exciting."
She is also so young that even if she had upset Kwan--Nari Nam
finished second to the Olympic silver medalist on the cards of
all nine judges--she would still have been ineligible to compete
in next month's world championships in Helsinki. If the rules
aren't changed, she'll be too young again in 2000. But in 2002,
when the Olympics come to Salt Lake City, Nari Nam will be
primed to knock off her idol.
Kwan, who skated beautifully except for a fall on a triple Lutz,
can see the potential in her young rival. "I've worked with her
a little," Kwan says, "and you can see it in her eyes. She
definitely has it in her."
Which, in a funny way, may help keep the 18-year-old Kwan from
losing interest in the 2002 Games and turning pro. Before the
worlds, even friends such as Brian Boitano were expressing doubt
that she could stay motivated for another three years.
There's a life out there beyond skating that Kwan is longing to
explore. Her older sister, Karen, is a junior at Boston
University, and Michelle talks to her almost daily about college
life. What's it like to eat pizza anytime she wants? To stay up
late talking to friends? To live away from the 'rents? These are
dizzying freedoms to an iceaholic like Kwan. She has applied to
Harvard, Stanford and UCLA and has considered taking a year off
from serious training to recharge her batteries.
Suddenly, though, that possibility seems more remote. "I want to
improve," says Kwan, whose jumps are bigger than ever this year
and who landed a triple toe-triple toe combination on Saturday
night that, had she done it at the Olympics, probably would have
won her the gold. "If I still have that flame burning inside me
and my legs are healthy, I'll be out here."
Trying not to look back to the future.
World Ski Championships
A VERY DRY RUN IN VAIL
Kristina Koznick, the leading American slalom skier, did roughly
eight times better at the world championships at Vail last
Saturday than she did at the last world championships, two years
ago. On a glorious Colorado day with ideal snow conditions,
Koznick, wearing the desirable number 1 starting bib and cheered
on by a rabid home crowd, lasted some 16 seconds before catching
an edge and straddling a gate. That was an improvement over her
performance at the '97 worlds in Sestriere, Italy, where she
missed the second gate, two seconds into her first run. Koznick,
who would have bet all her money that she would win a medal this
time, sank to her knees in the snow on Saturday and sobbed.
Having spent half a decade solidifying their reputation as
big-race skiers--with Tommy Moe's Olympic downhill win in
Lillehammer, Picabo Street's 1996 world downhill championship
and 1998 Olympic Super G title, Hilary Lindh's downhill gold in
Sestriere--the Americans squandered a home course advantage in
Vail with a grim performance. While Lasse Kjus of Norway was
winning two golds and three silvers and the indomitable
Austrians were taking 13 of the 30 medals, the U.S. was aced out
of the podium scramble by an Australian and a Liechtensteiner.
"What we are missing with this generation of athletes is
confidence," said U.S. women's coach Marjan Cernigoj. "They
train well, but they seem to be scared of the race." They
probably should be just as scared of U.S. ski association
president Bill Marolt, who said, after Koznick's abbreviated
run, "There's nothing wrong with the program that a little focus
and discipline and hard work and kick-ass attitude won't fix."
Koznick was the only bona fide U.S. medal hopeful in the
competition. (Street, who crashed in the World Cup finals last
March, will have a metal plate removed from her left leg late
next month and probably won't race for another year.) In the
past 13 months Koznick has won two World Cup slaloms, both of
them--not accidentally, in the mind of women's slalom coach
Georg Capaul--run at night. "She likes the crowds," Capaul says.
"She likes to perform. She skis really well when the lights are
bright." Koznick, 23, cheerfully admits that she craves
attention, which explains the blonde bleach job she got three
weeks ago. "Maybe I want to stand out more than I do," says
Koznick, who knows that finishing second in the World Cup slalom
standings last year and ranking fifth this season aren't enough
to make most Americans take notice. "I don't have a name like
Picabo, and I'm not a bitch, so, like, what do I do? I'm not
saying Picabo's a bitch, I'm just talking in general. But
something's got to catch somebody's attention."
Instead, she caught that edge. "Not my day, apparently," she
said, a single tear dripping down her cheek. Not the Americans'
two weeks. --Michael Farber
ATHLETES ON THE SCANDAL
As new examples of Olympic bribery and corruption ooze out day
by day, politicians and pundits continue to wag fingers and
scold the miscreants. One group, however, has been largely
silent on the subject. What do the athletes think about the
controversy enveloping the Games--their Games? SI asked a few
former and aspiring Olympians for their views on the scandal:
Brian Boitano, 1988 gold-medal-winning U.S. figure skater: "The
IOC ought to steer more of the athletes back onto the Olympic
Committee. The athletes should be paid for serving, and they
should be subject to election."
Todd Eldredge, two-time U.S. Olympic skater: "As athletes, we go
to the Olympics to skate. I've never in my life met an IOC
member. But this scandal shouldn't be that surprising, since you
hear it's what goes on in politics. Why wouldn't it be in the
Alexandra Meissnitzer, Austrian skier, world champion in Super G
and giant slalom: "Everything now is about money. The Olympics
should be about the athletes, not money."
Bode Miller, U.S. slalom skier: "I think it's typical of this age
and time. It seems more and more people are being exposed for the
sleazes they are. It's just a bummer that they're running the
A.J. Mleczko, 1998 U.S. women's Olympic hockey team member: "As
athletes we train and we compete, and nothing they do should be
able to take away the spirit of the Olympics. But bribery taints
that spirit. This has taken commercialization too far. It's