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For Kwan, Victory Is Solitary Pursuit
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page C1

 From left, Tara Lipinski, Michele Kwan and Nicole Bobek celebrate their performances at the 1998 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (AP File Photo)

NAGANO, Feb. 17 — Michelle Kwan is living in a cocoon. She does not watch the endless hours of figure skating coverage on television. She does not read the magazines that have put her on their covers, or the newspapers that have treated her practice sessions here at the Winter Games with more reverence than most actual Olympic events. She does not live in the athletes' village with other competitors. She has stopped granting interviews.

Frank Carroll planned things this way. Carroll, Kwan's coach, has attended a fair share of Olympic figure skating competitions. He brought Linda Fratianne to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., when she was a gold medal contender. He knows about all the hype and pressure that can come with being the world's top female skater at the Games.

And in Nagano, he is trying to insulate Kwan from that world.

"We've talked a lot about figure skating being another sport at the Olympics, not being the main thing," Carroll said after Kwan practiced her short program at White Ring today.

"We're only one little sport among many hundreds of sports. This is the Olympics, not the [figure skating] nationals. There's not such a big commotion."

Carroll isn't fooling anyone — probably not even Kwan — and he knows that. The women's figure skating competition begins Wednesday with the short program. And though Japan may have been abuzz with the continued success of its Olympians, who won the gold in team ski jumping Tuesday morning, the world at large, and America in particular, is transfixed.

"I know how big a deal this is," Carroll said. "I know how important this is to Michelle and to everybody in the United States that she skates well. And my job is to try to relieve as much tension from this kid as I can, and use what tools I have to do that."

At an Olympics in which the U.S. team has a chance to sweep the medals, Kwan, 17, is the runaway favorite to win the gold, so far ahead of her competition that she literally will have to stumble in her programs to lose it. Precocious Tara Lipinski, the 15-year-old world champion, is hoping to become the youngest Olympic gold medalist in women's figure skating history. And at 20, Nicole Bobek is hoping to translate her tremendous talent into an Olympic medal of any hue.

The American's chief competition will come from Russians Maria Butyrskaya — the European champion-and Irina Slutskaya. Another medal contender, Germany's Tanja Szewczenko, had to withdraw from the competition with flu.

"We all have a very good opportunity," Bobek said after one of her final pre-competition practices. "And if we all do our best, no problem."

Kwan performed arguably the best short and long programs ever last month at the nationals in Philadelphia, her skating so ethereal that hardened judges actually wept. She received an unprecedented seven out of nine perfect 6.0 scores in the short program, and eight of nine in the long. Should she skate as well here as she skated there, the gold is a given. And although Carroll is trying not to put Kwan in a position where she feels pressured to repeat a near-perfect performance, that is clearly what Kwan wants to do.

"You're trying to be the best here, not necessarily perfect," Carroll said at an Olympic news conference last week. Kwan, at his side, interrupted.

"But I can be better," she said.

"I've worked really hard after nationals and really did a lot to improve," said Kwan, who watched a videotape of her national championship performance and, according to Carroll, was more critical of her skating than the judges had been. "And I think I can still improve on what I did there."

Kwan's greatest fear is that she will have a repeat of what happened at the world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, last year. Struggling with her confidence, in what she described as "my coma," Kwan — then the defending world champion — faltered in the short program and finished fourth. That gave her no shot at the gold medal (she won the silver) and Lipinski exploded onto the scene as a 14-year old champion.

Lipinski's rise to prominence has fostered a belief that Kwan and Lipinski have arrived in Nagano as fierce rivals battling for the gold. In reality, Kwan always has been a better skater than the talented — and technically superior — Lipinski, and her beautiful artistry has been the talk of practices this week.

"I'm working hard and I'm ready to compete," Lipinski said. "I'm feeling more relaxed after each practice."

In Philadelphia, Kwan seemed omnipresent, frequently in the public spotlight and routinely ready to give interviews. Lipinski hid out, doing her best to be invisible.

But in Nagano, it has been almost the opposite. While Kwan's team has done everything possible to isolate her from the outside world, Lipinski is living it up. She was the only one of the three to arrive in time to march in the Opening Ceremonies. She attended the men's figure skating and cheered loudly for friend and training partner Todd Eldredge. She lives in the athletes' village. She's met the Snowlets.

Asked if it was possible to be 15 in this type of high-pressure atmosphere, Lipinski immediately said yes.

"That's what I feel like I'm doing," Lipinski said, but she quickly pointed out that her age has nothing to do with her skating. "I'm 15, I'm skating to very mature music. It's classical, it's beautiful."

The odd woman out has been Bobek, who admitted that she has felt a bit slighted by all the attention paid the other two U.S. skaters. Bobek, like Kwan, came to Nagano later than most competitors — she struggled with flu and a sore hip — but her arrival was not greeted with the same crop of television cameras and autograph hounds.

"It has been hard," Bobek said. "When I look in the press or on television, it's always been 'Tara-Michelle' and that's kind of upsetting. But in a way, it also makes me work harder. I actually miss [the pressure] because that's what pushes [you]. But I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope there will be a reason to recognize me."

The hardest part for Bobek came in her final days of training in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., which also happens to be where Kwan lives and trains. All around town, there were signs wishing Kwan luck in the Olympics, with nary a mention of Bobek. Asked about it, Bobek said that it hurt her, but she also acknowledged that it came as little surprise.

Deep in her heart, even Bobek knows the truth about these Olympics: The gold medal, and the public's adoration, are Kwan's to lose.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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