When the phone rang last Thursday night, Michelle Kwan was sitting on her couch, watching television, figure skating the last thing on her mind. When she picked up the receiver, she was surprised to hear the voice of her agent, Shep Goldberg.

"What are you doing next weekend?" Goldberg asked.

"Hopefully, going to Game Six of the World Series," said Kwan, a Torrance, Calif., native who has thrown her support to the Anaheim Angels.

Goldberg had a different idea. He had just gotten a call from U.S. Figure Skating Association Executive Director John LeFevre telling him that Sarah Hughes had dropped out of Skate America, which starts Thursday. There was an unexpected opening in the ladies event, an event Kwan had decided to skip as she mulled over her skating future.

Did Kwan want it?

Such a simple question. Yet so complicated.

Six days later, a faded Kwan, wearing jeans, diamond earrings and a shiny gold vest, walked with Goldberg and her new coach, Scott Williams, into Spokane Arena a day before the start of Skate America, an event that promises to unveil a new judging system, a new skating season and, apparently, a new Michelle Kwan. Kwan assumed what has become a customary place behind a microphone and in front of a roomful of reporters. She looked displaced and comfortable all at once. It was as if she couldn't believe she was here, but nonetheless felt completely at ease.

"It's so nice," Kwan said, "to surprise everyone.

"I think," she added, "I'm kind of ready."

Kwan, who left her future plans vague after finishing third at last February's Olympic Games, couldn't quite make up her mind all summer. She never said she definitely would return to major international eligible skating. But she never said she wouldn't, either. Her indecision meant she failed to secure a place in the field for Skate America; USFSA officials were happy to pose the invitation when a spot opened. Last Friday, Kwan called Goldberg back and told him competing at Skate America "sounds like fun." Even Goldberg, who has represented her for years, was stunned.

Never has Kwan done skating on the spur of the minute. She has always planned and prepared, trained with a purpose, followed the scent of goals. This year, it's different. Lately, she's just been enjoying herself.

"I thought it would be kind of fun, to try things out," Kwan said. ". . . My mind-set this year is a little bit unclear and I kind of liked it that way. I took a different pace. [It's] a little less stressful for now.

"I guess you can call me the underdog, or the veteran, or the old woman. I feel ancient compared to the other skaters. It's like a whole new group of skaters out there on the ice. It's very refreshing, and also challenging."

Kwan, 22, may feel like an old lady after nearly a decade of international prominence, but no one is ready to wheel her off the ice just yet. She immediately became the favorite here upon announcing her entry. The relatively weak field includes rising American Ann Patrice McDonough, who finished second to Kwan at an international tuneup three weeks ago in Daytona Beach, Fla., as well as Russian Victoria Volchkova, ninth at the 2002 Olympic Games, Ukraine's Elena Llashenko, sixth at the recent world championships and Hungary's Julia Sebestyen, eighth at the Olympics.

Still, Kwan will debut a short program that is just two weeks old. She will bring out a long program that is five weeks old. And she is still adjusting to a coaching relationship that goes back a mere six weeks, when she asked Williams -- a former competitive skater and longtime friend -- to assist her. Kwan's plan was so tenuous, she has no contract with Williams. They are working day to day.

"I know it's not going to be easy," Kwan said. "I see triple Axels, triple-triple combinations" from the other skaters. "I'm in a different stage of my life . . . My goals have changed over the last few years. I've been more for myself and not for actual medals or to win . . . I feel the most important thing is to push yourself to the limit."

After the Olympics, Kwan toured with Champions on Ice for several months this summer. Unlike last summer, she was no longer the final act -- that desirable spot had been given to Hughes, the upset winner at the Winter Games. Kwan, though, enjoyed the tour anyway. She realized -- once again -- that failing to win the gold at the Olympics was not the same as failing. This February brought not her first, but her a second disappointing Winter Games; also a favorite to win in 1998, she had won the silver there.

Coming back to skating "is a little strange," she said. "I would have thought I would feel differently. But life moves on. I learned a lot through the tour. It's okay. Here I am again, just trying for it, keeping it simple, understanding it's only a competition.

"It was a wonderful experience at the Olympics. I've gotten good reception in every city I've performed . . . the tour actually helped me. . . . One performance isn't going to make me a good person or a bad person."

Kwan said she is aiming to compete at January's U.S. championships in Dallas -- with the hope of qualifying for the world championships in March in Washington. At the moment, she said, she does not intend to compete at any other fall or winter skating events on the Grand Prix series, which Skate America kicks off.

But, she said with a smile, "who knows?

"I might get another call."

Michelle Kwan was invited to this week's Skate America when Sarah Hughes dropped out. "You can call me the underdog."