Archive for Thursday, February 21, 2002

Kwan on verge

February 21, 2002


— Michelle Kwan came to the Olympics with two goals  have a blast and win gold.

One down, one to go.

"It's completely different than in Nagano," said Kwan, who always seems to be smiling at these games. "I'm just having fun and enjoying it."

America's favorite figure skater is taking advantage of the entire Olympic extravaganza this time around, hanging out in the athletes' village, marching in the opening ceremony and taking in a U.S. hockey game. And just like Tara Lipinski four years ago, her carefree attitude is carrying over to the ice.

After winning the short program, she's just four minutes from gold, the only title missing from her resume. Kwan leads Russian rival Irina Slutskaya and fellow Americans Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes going into tonight's free skate, worth two-thirds of the final score.

"No regrets," she said. "Just go out and have fun."

Kwan skated beautifully at the 1998 Nagano Games, good enough to be champion any other year. But she held a little of herself back while Lipinski attacked the ice, and that reserve meant silver instead of gold for Kwan.

Although she's proud of the medal she won, it wasn't the color she wanted. She stared at it with puffy red eyes, crying again when her father tried to cheer her up with an encouraging nod.

"There wasn't a huge mistake. I didn't fall. But in some ways, I know that I held back," she said.

Kwan, 21, has been fighting not to do that ever since. When she decided last fall that something didn't feel quite right, she knew she had to make a drastic move.

In October, with the Olympics four months away, she stunned everyone by splitting with longtime coach Frank Carroll. Equally shocking, she decided not to hire another coach.

"I just feel right now I need to listen to myself, understand what's wrong," she said.

The move has paid off. Although she struggled at first  her third-place finish at Skate Canada was her lowest since 1996  everything came together at last month's nationals, where she won her sixth U.S. title.

"My position has changed from a Michelle Kwan coach to a Michelle Kwan fan," Carroll said. "I want her to win. I think she's the greatest skater in the world."

Despite the split with Carroll, Kwan isn't completely on her own.

When she took the ice for the short program Tuesday, she received a raucous ovation from the flag-waving crowd, the kind skaters usually get only after they skate.

When she finished, she got more flowers and stuffed animals from fans than any other skater.

She also has her father, Danny, by her side at practice and competition. The four-time world champion is quick to say her dad isn't her coach, but he does give her advice and support.

When she's struggling with a jump in practice, she'll skate over to him for a brief consultation.

"He's said he's my cheerleader. He's just wondering where his pom-pons are," Kwan said with a laugh. "The main thing is to believe in myself and take control on the ice."

Off the ice, too. She knew after Nagano she wanted to keep skating, but she wanted more in her life. So she enrolled part-time at UCLA, even living in the dorms her first semester.

She made friends who didn't know a double axel from a truck axle, and reveled in living a "normal" life. She owns a condo by the beach and has a serious boyfriend, Florida Panthers defenseman Brad Ference.

She's living life to the fullest in Salt Lake City, too. Unlike Nagano, where Kwan arrived late, stayed in a hotel and got the sterilized version of the Olympic experience, she's having a ball here.

While Cohen and Hughes left after the opening ceremony to do some quiet training, Kwan stayed put. She worried at first about being distracted, but it's actually been more peaceful. In Nagano, her reclusiveness was a story. Now that everyone knows where she is, it's not nearly as intriguing.

"It's a great moment in my life, and I'm really enjoying it," she said. "This is something I did miss out on a little, but I didn't realize it."

Just how loose is she? While her competitors paced nervously before the short program as Elvis Presley blared through the arena's P.A. system  "All Shook Up," appropriately enough  Kwan mugged for the cameras, shimmying her shoulders in a move that would have made The King proud.

If she keeps it up, she'll have that shiny gold medal she craves, too.

"You just have to be calm," she said. "Your preparation is already done and ... you just have to keep up with what you've been training for a long time. You know, no regrets."

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