It's what Michelle Kwan could not do that has driven her to this point: preparing, once again, for the U.S. figure skating championships. She could not imagine relinquishing the nerve-rattling competition that has defined her life for the past 10 years. She could not bear to give up her Olympic eligibility, even though she is daunted by the mere mention of the next Winter Games in 2006. "I can't even say that, '2006,' " she said.
Kwan's decisions, lately, have been dictated more by what she cannot envision than what she can. She isn't sure, anymore, exactly what she wants out of skating. But she does know this: She isn't ready to walk away from the sport, not with the 2003 world championships taking place in Washington this March. After years of obsessive planning and single-minded determination, Kwan finds her dreams spread like hazy clouds on a wide horizon. What, exactly, does she want? Does she want to compete in another Olympics? Will she continue in Olympic-eligible skating next year? Will she even compete at the International Skating Union Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg in February?
"I'm hitting a different stage of my life," said Kwan, 22. "I have a lot of options and I'm just weighing them."
It was just a few weeks ago that Kwan decided for certain that she would participate in the U.S. championships in Dallas. She still hasn't determined whether she will attend the Grand Prix Final, to which she won a surprising invitation despite competing in only one Grand Prix event this fall. Even her business relationship with new coach Scott Williams, with whom she began working last summer, is curiously vague, more resembling a handshake agreement than a formal contractual arrangement. "We haven't really thought too much about long-term," said Williams, 36, a former singles skater who won a silver medal at the 1986 U.S. championships. "It would be hard for her to tell me anything when she's still taking things one step at a time with what she's doing."
Kwan, who trains with Williams in Los Angeles, has spent the season trying to keep herself in top competitive shape while untangling her mind and sifting through future options. She wonders wistfully whether there is a way to do it all, compete at the highest levels of her sport while having a full life: going to school at UCLA (she has taken several semesters off to skate), spending time with her boyfriend, Brad Ference of the Florida Panthers, tiptoeing into various business opportunities, such as those attached to her endorsement agreement with Disney. She misses school and is eager for normalcy. However, the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes she isn't ready to let go of skating.
"I really let myself relax a little bit this year," Kwan said. "I gave myself a choice: Do I miss it enough to go to compete again? . . . When do you know it's time to say you're not competing anymore? It doesn't feel like I'm ready not to compete. It feels empty."
Despite Kwan's thoughtful and somewhat tentative re-emergence in Olympic-eligible skating after last year's Winter Games, she says she is fully prepared for competition. She says her indecision hasn't affected the quality of her training in recent months, which she describes as more focused and intense than ever.
"People are always going full-steam ahead," she said. "I don't feel in any way that I'm not going 90 miles per hour. Everyone has a different approach."
For Williams, Kwan is a unique pupil. She has won two Olympic medals -- a silver in 1998 and a bronze last winter -- and four world championship golds. She knows more about competition than he could ever hope to teach. So they work strictly on skating. She can manage the mental realm on her own. As for the diffusion of her focus, Williams believes the diversity in her interests, the spontaneity of her decisions, her vacillation about the future -- all of those things have helped her evolve as a skater.
"It allows for a little more freedom," Williams said. "I don't think it's the kind of thing someone could do well at an earlier stage of their career, but in her situation it's quite appropriate. For her, it's quite freeing. . . . Ultimately, the best way to approach things is one moment at a time, so you are focused on what you are doing."
Both Williams and Kwan promise that fans will see Kwan at her most refined in Dallas. They will see a skater who is every bit as sharp as she was a year ago, or four years ago. What they won't see, however, is a reinvented Kwan. The same qualities that brought Kwan to skating's peaks in the past, they hope, will carry her to her seventh U.S. championship and, perhaps, a fifth world title in March.
Though women's singles skating has advanced more rapidly this season than during any in recent memory, and possibly in history, Kwan isn't sweating over the technological achievements of younger skaters. She said she has toyed with quadruple jumps and triple axels, both of which have been landed in competition this fall. But, she confesses, she would be uncomfortable trying to land either in competition. "It's not reality now for me to do quads," she said. "I say [to myself], 'Okay, what's the reality under pressure, under the lights?' "
The reality is, Kwan has always excelled on her sublime grace. She still struggles to land consistently triple-triple combinations (the last two Olympic gold medal winners, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, each landed a pair of triple-triples in their Olympic programs). For that reason, Kwan is unlikely to try a triple-triple at the U.S. championships. She is not, however, worried that she is somehow failing to keep pace. She and Williams believe her reputation for well-roundedness will serve her as well now as it has in the past.
"It's exciting in skating to see those advances, but everybody has to stick with their own game plan," Williams said. "Michelle does what she does. . . . She really encompasses the best of skating."
It's been a whirlwind year for Kwan. This summer, she decided she would take the fall off, skipping the Grand Prix circuit, but those plans changed the weekend before the season's opening event, Skate America in Spokane, Wash. A last-minute injury to Hughes left an opening that the U.S. Figure Skating Association pleaded with Kwan to fill. So Kwan flew to Spokane, unusually unprepared, and won the competition. Months later, she found out that lone victory was enough to qualify her for the Grand Prix Final -- a highly unexpected occurrence.
No matter what choices Kwan has made, it seems, skating has been calling her back to the sport.
"It's hard for all athletes to say, I'm turning pro, I'm not competing any more," she said. "At this point, that's not a step I want to take."