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In Olympic Spotlight, Kwan Doesn't Blink
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 1998; Page C8




 Michele Kwan (foreground) and Tara Lipinski work out at the White Ring ice rink Wednesday.
(Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

NAGANO, Feb. 11 — The microphones were on, the cameras were pointed, the questions were fired. But the young woman in the middle of this tidal wave of attention wasn't rattled. She sat up straight, smiled a great deal and seemed to enjoy having an audience.

Being the centerpiece of the Olympic Games is new for U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan. In 1994, she was an Olympic alternate who never made it closer to Lillehammer than a training facility in Oslo. For the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, Kwan was ... 11 years old.

For these Games, Kwan isn't merely expected to win her first Olympic medal. She is considered nothing short of a lock for the gold, especially given the precedent set in the pairs competition by the panel of judges, which expressly rewarded artistry while seemingly overlooking blatant mistakes in execution.

"That's great that a lot people have confidence in me winning the gold medal," said Kwan, 17. "I enjoy being the Olympic favorite. You don't think of it as winning the gold. My winning program is to skate well. That's what I'm here to do."

Not only is artistry Kwan's strength, her coach, Frank Carroll, suggests she might be the best ever in that aspect of her sport. At the U.S. nationals in Philadelphia in January, Kwan received an unprecedented 15 of 18 perfect 6.0 scores for presentation and easily regained her national title from fellow Olympian Tara Lipinski.

"The ISU [International Skating Union] as a governing body has really tried to emphasize beauty in skating, especially for women," Carroll said. "I think perhaps people see in Michelle that direction, and they appreciate it. We're delighted that they do."

After winning the world and national championships in 1996, Kwan lost both crowns to Lipinski last year. Then, after finishing ahead of Lipinski at a competition this fall, Kwan suffered a toe injury that put her health in question until the January national championships.

So, being considered the runaway gold medal favorite is indeed a new thing for Kwan, who has spent most of the last year chasing away her physical and mental ills. Through the Feb. 20 long program, Kwan will be shooing away only reporters and camera crews. It should help that she, like Lipinski, who returned here today after three days training in Osaka, won't be staying in the Olympic Village.

A crowd of reporters watched Kwan's first practice today at the White Ring ice rink. Reporters dutifully noted that she fell a couple of times. When the subject of the falls came up at today's news conference, Carroll jumped to respond.

"Every athlete that exists falls on a daily basis at every practice session," he said. "If they are not falling, they are not working hard ... Michelle has fallen twice since she has been here, which I think shows a remarkable degree of consistency."

Kwan said she chose to come to Japan after the Opening Ceremonies not to avoid attention, but rather to have extended workouts where she is comfortable, at her home rink in California.

She watched the Opening Ceremonies on television and said she wished she were in Nagano.

"It wasn't the same feeling as if I were there," she said. "... It was a little disappointing not being there with my team, but I've got to focus on my own thing now and do what's best for me."

That means not thinking too much about what she sees with every step: fans, reporters, people wanting a piece of her.

"It seemed like yesterday that Lillehammer was here," she said. "I don't think I'm a big star. I'm here to skate well. I'm here to do my best."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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