• U.S.

Nagano 1998: Figure Skating: Michelle Kwan: Amazing Grace

14 minute read
Alice Park

She was on a beach in Florida, strolling on a hot, muggy night in October. Her coach was nowhere in sight, but Michelle Kwan still had only one thing on her mind: skating. Very quickly she transformed the soft sand into an accomplice to ice. First, she turned one foot on its side and walked on it for a minute, then she switched to the other foot and did the same. There was a reason for the bizarre exercise, she explained to TIME. “Sometimes when you don’t land a jump properly, even if you’re a little crooked, you can still have cat feet and land and be stable–if you have strong ankles.” And foot by foot, ankle by ankle, against the sand of Daytona Beach, she worked up her strength.

Out of such earthbound perseverance has emerged an amazing grace, with no trace of strain, as Kwan last month won the U.S. national title and the honor of leading America’s women figure skaters to the Olympics next week. It was a victory that gave no evidence of the pain that shoots through her left foot when she lands one of those seemingly effortless triple jumps. The only expression on her face was that beatific smile, won by defiance of every sort of gravity, not just the earth’s but the body’s and the mind’s as well, dangerous forces that cannot just bring a skater down but keep her down too. At the Winter Games in Nagano, Kwan will be joined on Team U.S.A. by two others who can smile in the face of gravity and adversity: Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek. All have been national champions. And, yes, they are all veterans, even Lipinski at 15, of juggling skating careers with public adoration, of living life on the edge of a blade and calculating victory or defeat in the split second it takes to leap from the ice. Don’t let the sequins and lace and the perfect coifs fool you; these ice princesses could kick a hole in the Titanic. And Kwan is perhaps the toughest of them.

She has overcome fall after fall, and the memory of those falls, with the iron will to fly. Kwan skates three 45-min. sessions each day and sets goals for herself at each practice, devoting one session to the combination spin, improving the speed of the whirl and smoothing out the changes in direction, and another session to a jump. Kwan admits that when she has a “bad skate,” her coach Frank Carroll will say, “It’s O.K.” But, she says, “I tell myself, ‘You’re not getting off the ice.’ He knows I torture myself and put myself through all kinds of tasks.” It was the punishing workouts that last November caused a months-old stress fracture in her left foot to become so painful that Kwan could not walk, let alone skate. She had to wear a cast for two weeks. As the nationals approached last month, Kwan still had not resumed her full training schedule. After a particularly frustrating practice session around Christmas, she asked Carroll, “Why is this happening to me?” And if physical pain was a burden, the psychological stresses were even graver. Self-doubt can never be truly exorcised, and on the eve of what would be a remarkable reconquest of the national title, Kwan was anxious. “I wasn’t skating the greatest,” she said. “I think I did one clean long [program] before the competition, and I thought, ‘How am I going to do it if I haven’t done so many clean longs?’ “

Such anxieties are compounded by the way all figure-skating competitions are set up. Some skaters have been known to psych one another out in practice and warmup, which usually take place in the same rink. Once the competition begins, all skaters stretch in the same area backstage, as the public-address system booms their rivals’ scores throughout the arena. As many as 40 min. can elapse between an on-ice warmup and a contestant’s solo turn to compete. Some skaters plug in earphones, listening to whatever relaxes them, drowning out their bothers. (Lipinski tunes in to peppy dance mixes.) Kwan closes her eyes and visualizes herself skating a perfect program.

Once it’s time to take to the ice, new doubts and distractions set in. No one skates the same program exactly the same way twice. Each performance is an evolving dynamic that takes shape only as blade hits ice. Underneath the show smiles whir constant questions: “Is there enough speed for this jump? Can I make three revolutions or just two? Since I missed the first jump, should I throw another one in?” Yet skaters must not fall for the easy temptation of deep analysis. Lipinski, a wizardly technician on the ice, says that during her long program, lasting 4 minutes, she doesn’t think too hard about mechanics. “I try to keep the technical things in mind, but I don’t think about it too much, because then you start to mess up.” Kwan calls her competitive mode “emotional, yet unemotional,” balancing the need to lose herself in the music and the movement yet remain in enough control to perform the difficult technical elements.

Kwan knows what it is to lose control. The previous season was one of the hardest for her. She lost three major championships, including her national and world titles, in the space of two months. The defeats devastated her. Losing the nationals a year ago was the bitterest of all. She was the favorite for the gold medal, but a few minutes into her long program, she found herself sprawled on the ice after slipping out of a jump. After the first fall came another; then she had to put a hand down on the ice to steady herself after a shaky landing. She had panicked. Coming off the ice, Kwan could only shake her head and ask over and over, “What did I do?” Lipinski took the title, and a fierce rivalry was born.

Afterward, Kwan was in tears. Her father Danny recalls her saying, “Daddy, I have to learn to love the sport again.” The love didn’t rush back all at once. The 17-year-old felt that “people didn’t like me anymore because I had lost. I was in agony.” After the season ended, Kwan returned home to the California mountains that enclose Lake Arrowhead, and amid the serenity of the evergreen and oak forest, she says, “I re-thought everything I’d done, and I realized skating is not all I have. I’ve got my family, I’ve got friends. There’s more to life.” In the spring, Kwan joined a 60-city skating tour, and on long bus and plane rides between performances, she absorbed the advice offered by more seasoned skaters, particularly Russian ice dancer and Olympic silver medalist Maia Usova and Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, whom Kwan idolizes. As the summer progressed, Kwan gradually put her skating defeats in focus, learning how to keep the painful experiences at enough distance so the memory of them did not paralyze her, yet close enough so she would never forget the lessons of her losses. “I had to go through it,” she says. “I learned a lot more when I was going downhill than when I was winning consecutive championships.”

Most important, the experience taught her introspection and gave her an opportunity to tend to the psychological game of skating. “Competitions are all about waiting and the mental strength of dealing with little things while you’re waiting,” she says. “You have to block everyone else out and concentrate on your own thing.” And in Philadelphia in January, warily preparing to go on the ice, she shook off the doubts about her long program. “I’ve done this program 1 million times,” she said to herself, “and I’m going to do it right now.” The result was historic: eight of nine judges gave her perfect sixes; she recaptured the nationals and was America’s top contender for Olympic gold. “Last year I didn’t want to skate,” she says. “But I think this year it’s a little different. I just want to feel natural and just show the world my skating.” She adds, “I just want to be me.”

That is not as easy as it sounds. Michelle Kwan grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., envious of her brother Ron’s hockey skates. When her parents were reluctant to put their daughters on ice, Michelle and her sister wore down all opposition. They became so obsessed with the sport that they slept in their skating outfits so they would not waste time dressing when they woke at dawn for their lessons. When she was seven, Kwan watched Boitano win the gold in Calgary and decided she wanted to become an Olympic champion. “I didn’t know you had to qualify to get in,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I want to go to the Olympics. Let’s go!'”

To that end, she staged a notable rebellion against her coach, Frank Carroll, when she was just 11 and competing at the junior level (she had made a respectable but not stellar debut: ninth at the junior nationals). Carroll did not think she was ready for the seniors, from whose ranks Olympians were chosen. But she knew that was her only way to get to the 1994 Games in Lillehammer in time. So when Carroll left to attend a coaches’ conference, Kwan persuaded her father to drive her to the qualifying tests. “It was important to me to qualify,” she explains without any regret. “I wanted to be in the senior ladies’ in 1993 so the judges could see me, and maybe the next year they would give me second or third, and I would make the Olympic team.” Carroll was livid when he returned, but Kwan qualified. When the Olympic year came, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding contretemps provided Kwan an opening. Kerrigan’s injury allowed the 13-year-old Kwan to place second to Harding at the nationals and to qualify as an alternate in Lillehammer. The experience was not all she expected. As an alternate, she had to practice on a separate rink alone, once again feeling like the little girl watching her brother have all the fun on the ice. She vowed she would never go to the Olympics again just to watch. Now she is heading for Nagano as not only the American champion but also the overwhelming favorite for the gold.

Well, perhaps not that overwhelming. Kwan has competition, the keenest being fellow American Lipinski, the reigning world champion. This year Lipinski, like Kwan, has had to learn some harsh lessons. The first came at the competitive season opener in October; Kwan powered through a dramatic, elegant program set to Rachmaninoff, and this time there were no slips. Lipinski followed suit, delivering a clean short program. She couldn’t hide her disappointment when the marks appeared. The technical scores, usually her highest, included a 5.5 out of a perfect 6.0. The pattern has continued in Lipinski’s other competitions this season. On several jumps, judges have noted some flaws in her technique that have cost her points. Lipinski’s coach, Richard Callaghan, believes his skater is being scrutinized more carefully because she is the current world champion. Lipinski admits to being “puzzled” by her lower technical scores, but in public, at least, she doesn’t let it bother her. “I have a lot of confidence in my skating this year,” she says. “So when I go out there [on the ice], I put everything that’s on the outside away, and I think about my skating and what I need to do to feel happy.”

Still, she has not dominated competitions this year. She won one event but lost the nationals to Kwan and Trophy Lalique to the relatively unknown French skater Laetitia Hubert. Lipinski points out, however, that she had not won anything before her sweep at the end of last season. She tells TIME, “I feel so much less pressure now that I’ve made the Olympic team. The Olympics is going to be a little easier, because you’ve already made it, and you can just have fun with it now.”

While she would have liked to arrive in Nagano as the U.S. ladies’ champion, Lipinski is seasoned enough to put her loss behind her. “It was disappointing,” she says of the dramatic fall that cost her the short program and forced her to battle back from fourth place to take the silver. “The biggest thing for me was that I made a mistake but I got up and did the rest of my program well instead of falling more and falling apart and not being able to hold it together. That felt good to me, that I could show everybody I’m not one of those skaters who fall apart after one fall.”

That fierce self-assessment, with its apparent reference to Kwan’s spectacular fall last year, is magnified by Lipinski’s appearance. There is a moment during every competition when the audience is reminded of just how young–and tiny–Lipinski really is. Just before it’s her turn on the ice, as she waits for her name to be called, she skates around with the flower girls. She carves small circles around them, head down, eyes focused, concentrating on the program she is about to perform. At 4 ft. 10 in. and 80 lbs., with her hair pulled back in a beribboned bun, Lipinski is almost indistinguishable from the girls sent out to gather blooms and gifts tossed out by fans. That is, until she hears her name. Then she breaks free, strokes purposefully toward center ice, and suddenly everyone knows this is no flower girl.

Few in the ladies’ field can match Lipinski’s reliability on those tricky triple jumps. A particularly difficult combination, the triple loop-triple loop, is now a trademark of hers. She has improved her speed and coverage of the ice considerably since last year by trying to match her training partner (and U.S. men’s national champion) Todd Eldredge stroke for stroke around the rink. That is no easy task, since at 5 ft. 8 in. Eldredge stands a good foot taller. Now that she is an Olympian, Lipinski says, “I just want to have fun, enjoy the experience and do the best I can. If I win, I’ll be extremely happy. If I don’t, it’ll be disappointing because it’s been one of my dreams.” But it won’t be the end of her dreams. She’s young enough. Says Lipinski: “I’m sure I’ll be back.”

Lipinski’s artistry is still nascent, and in that way she is where Kwan was about four years ago. Then Kwan was a ponytailed girl who could not believe people were actually interested in what she had to say. Now she rules the ice. Her skating has a light, effortless quality that transcends the mechanics of the sport and its often rote choreography. She feeds off the power of her music, using the swells and dips of the notes to guide her movements and propel her spins and jumps. “The skating quality she has achieved–her edge, her body line, her flexibility, her musicality–is not by accident,” says her choreographer, Lori Nichol. “There is so much work that goes into it. You have to be so secure in your technique for the soul to come out like that. She does everything so well that I don’t think people on the average realize how difficult what she’s doing is.”

But Kwan does know how good she has become, and she is already looking beyond the Olympics. “I want to keep going,” she says. “I know I’m capable of a lot more in skating, and I want to accomplish more. I want to be a legend. I want people to remember me after 1,000 years.” Every so often, however, the rigors of perfection and the sting of memory give her pause. Backstage, as she waited before her long program last month, Kwan turned to her coach and asked, “Do you think people know what it’s like to compete like this? How much tension and stress there is right now?” Before Carroll could respond, Kwan reverted to form. She declared, “But, you know, I like it.”

–With Reporting By Susanna Schrobsdorff/Detroit

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