Olympic Favorite Kwan Has Fire Under Grace
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page D1
At just 5 feet 2 and 106 pounds, Kwan looks delicate and graceful enough to put on the top of a Christmas tree. Yet hidden inside her thin, gentle frame is a strong will that can be unyielding, and the power to sift through pressure, holding onto the excitement and leaving behind the fright.
It is by herself, at center stage, that Kwan thrives. At 17, she had never competed in an Olympics before Wednesday's short program.
"I never liked counting on anybody," Kwan said. "I think I'd kill my pairs partner if he made a mistake. I think it's really difficult by yourself."
Yet Kwan, the gold medal favorite entering Wednesday's competition, took the ice, stared at the crowd, thought about the "millions" who were watching on television and decided she had just landed in heaven.
Pressure? Kwan took two deep, measured breaths before starting her program and told herself: Go and do your job. She finished ahead of fellow American Tara Lipinski who entered as the favorite for second place and Russian Maria Butyrskaya.
"I'm very comfortable and easygoing, knowing I can do it. I know how to compete," Kwan said. "I feel like I know everything that's going on. I know my program. Everything's under control."
Kwan's joy on the ice is evident, conveyed by wide grins and emotional performances. Under wraps is the toughness inside, the stern internal voice that quells nervousness. Before going out to skate Wednesday, Kwan heard the high marks awarded Lipinski and felt uneasiness creeping in. But Kwan shooed it away.
"I thought: I'm here on my own. It's an individual sport. I'm here for myself. I kind of knocked some sense into myself."
Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, said Kwan can be stubborn and difficult when fighting for something in which she believes. Choosing her program music is an example.
"Michelle is a nightmare as far as music is concerned," Carroll said. "She really has her own thoughts about music and her taste in it. ... If she doesn't like the music, you are dead meat."
When Kwan was 11, she decided she was ready to move from junior to senior level competition by taking the senior level qualifying test. She had her eyes on being able to qualify for the 1994 Olympics, which were a little more than a year away. While Carroll was out of town, Kwan asked her father to take her to the qualifying exam. Carroll neither knew nor approved, even after Kwan passed.
"I was furious," Carroll said. "I was supposed to be captain of the ship, and one of my skaters who I decided was going to be the junior champion of the U.S. wasn't going to be junior champion of the U.S."
Explained Kwan: "I was really determined to compete with everybody. I took the test, and when he came back and found out about it, he was really mad."
Last spring, Kwan seemed to learn to harness her will. After falling for the second consecutive competition during her short program at the world championships, Kwan knew she had just blown a chance to retain her 1996 world title. Crying and upset after the event, she laced her shoes to leave the venue and a shoelace broke. She accidentally smacked herself in the face with one of her hands.
She was out of control and didn't like it. That summer brought a change of focus for Kwan, who made a commitment to enjoy her countless hours on the ice.
"I think my perspective has changed from last year to this year," Kwan said. "I think that's what helped me to push through and enjoy this year."
Before winning the U.S. nationals and world championships in 1996, Kwan was considered little more than an immensely talented little girl with a ponytail. Kwan and Carroll both knew this image wouldn't get them anywhere. So during that season, Kwan abandoned the ponytail for a more sophisticated hair bun. She decided to play the role of a seductress in her long program, and she began wearing performance makeup.
"It was shocking to the Kwans," Carroll said. "Young Chinese girls do not wear makeup. ... It really took a physical overhauling as far as her appearance."
Her body changed, too.
"What Michelle went through last year, I thought her body changed a lot more than she realized and she was making a lot more adjustments than she realized," Carroll said.
Her body and mind in sync for the first time in her life, Kwan stands in first place at the start of Friday's competition, close enough to touch the gold.
Winning, of course, would bring more gold. Other U.S. figure skating medalists Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton are estimated to have earned more than $15 million during their careers.
"We've heard from a lot of people," said Kwan's agent, Shep Goldberg. "[But] she is going to be very, very careful and selective about what she does. ... [Her parents] feel very strongly that the main thing in sport is for the love of skating."
When Kwan takes the ice Friday night, she will soak up the moment, feel the electricity and finish with a smile. This has become her trademark. She hopes a gold medal will become her trophy.
"I've definitely gone through a lot," Kwan said Wednesday night, before disappearing toward the locker room. "I've experienced a lot more. The more I do, the easier it is."
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