Figure skating coach Frank Carroll recalled lambasting a 13-year-old girl with exceptional jumping ability but little style after learning she had decided -- against his advice -- to take her unadorned leaps to the senior level. She was unwilling to spend a final year touching up her less-than-glowing artistry in juniors. Carroll was livid.
"I said, 'Do you know how much better you have to be to crack seniors, let alone to stand out?' " Carroll recalled. "You're a kid. You're rough. You're not limber. You can't do a spiral high above your head. You have a lousy layback. You skate awkwardly. You have so much work to do. Her reaction was: 'I'll do it.' "
The skater was Michelle Kwan.
A decade and seven U.S. championships later, Kwan, 22, is still struggling to merge the strength and grace the sport requires. This time, ironically, it is the technical side that troubles her, especially the demanding, athletic combination jumps most skaters land regularly.
Coaches say you can't get judges' attention without a dazzling repertoire of jumps. The catch is, however, that you can't truly place well without a certain grace and beauty that deeply moves judges. And skaters are judged on both facets of the sport.
"From the time I was five until I was 13, all I was thinking about was jumps," Kwan said. "I realized there was more to it than just jumps, whether you are portraying a certain character on the ice or just expressing a certain music."
Kwan, who will seek her fifth world title next week at the world championships in Washington, has been transformed from a technically obsessed gymnast on ice to the sport's most appealing ballerina, a skater with musical dimension, unrivaled grace. She has earned 34 6.0s for presentation during her 10-year career.
Kwan is hardly the only skater who struggles to find the balance between athletic ability and artistry. American skater Tim Goebel has earned the nickname "Quad King" after setting nearly every quadruple jump record there is. He has his sights on another: He plans to perform four quads in his long program next season. He landed three quads for the first time in Olympic history at the 2002 Salt Lake Games and performed the most technically difficult program ever.
Yet, because he was considered less of an artist than Russia's Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko, he finished third.
Goebel, 22, said he envies what Kwan has done to redefine her career. Hopeful of making the same transition, three years ago he left his longtime coach, Carol Heiss Jenkins, and joined Carroll, whom Kwan worked with since her earliest days in skating before firing him in 2001, along with her choreographer, Lori Nichol.
What Kwan did, Goebel said, "it's something I've never really seen anyone else do in my skating lifetime, make a drastic change so quickly."
"When my career is over, I don't just want to be known as a jumper," he added. "I want to be known as a great overall skater. . . . At the same time, I've had a lot of success as just a jumper."
Goebel, however, insists he wasn't leaping out of his bassinet as a baby. He said, in fact, he found himself embarrassingly behind his peers in that category as a young teen. In 1996, he said, he was one of the few top skaters who did not have a triple axel at the junior world championships. He finished seventh. A year before, he said, he struggled with the triple lutz and finished 14th.
"Up until I was 16, I was really behind everyone," Goebel said.
Shamed and motivated, Goebel worked so diligently on jumping for the next several years that, he confessed, he neglected the presentation aspect of his performances -- and for that he was hammered by judges. It took him two years to win a major event after becoming the first U.S. man to land a quadruple jump in March 1998.
"It's something I spent a lot of time working on, probably at the expense of the artistic for a while," he said. "I would do dozens every day. It was something that took a long time. . . . I've worked so hard on it. It took years and years of work, a lot of injuries and a lot of hard work."
Jenkins, Goebel's former coach, said that although Goebel mastered certain jumps later than others, from his earliest days in the sport he showed an innate knack for turning in the air.
"Timmy always had the ability to rotate," she said. "I always felt if he wanted to, he eventually could do a quintuple salchow because it's such a gift he has. . . . The second mark [presentation] I always felt was something Timmy could learn."
Unlike Goebel's, Kwan's disappointments have come when she couldn't match her competition jump for jump. As she became the queen of artistry, other skaters made technical advancements. At the 1998 Olympics, Kwan skated beautifully and received all 5.9s (out of 6.0) for presentation, but still finished second to 15-year-old Tara Lipinski, who scored slightly higher technical marks after performing two triple-triple combinations and seven triples overall. Even now, Kwan doesn't feel comfortable with triple-triple combination jumps. She doesn't plan to attempt any at the world championships, even though she knows Sarah Hughes, who hit two at last year's Olympics, and other skaters likely will try.
"It's difficult," Kwan said. "It's something everyone goes through. . . . You can never be too comfortable. When you are too comfortable, it's like you're closing your eyes and ignoring that people are working hard and improving, pushing the envelope. It's always going to be like that. Whether you stay the same or not, it's up to you."
Coaches and skaters say it's harder to add technique than to refine artistry, but the methodology for improving technique is more structured than for sharpening the presentation mark. There is a right way and a wrong way to jump, spin and spiral. Artistry, though, is part learned, part felt, part expressed. Coaches, though, agree on this: Even as jumps of increasing difficulty become more popular in the sport, the importance of a strong presentation mark has not diminished.
Jenkins said she has urged Parker Pennington, one of her rising male skaters in Lakewood, Ohio, to visit art galleries to get in touch with his artistic side. U.S. champion Michael Weiss, who was criticized for a lack of style early in his career, said he spent countless hours in front of the mirror, trying to find movements and positions that made him look good. Goebel said he tries to get to know the characters he is portraying in order to project the appropriate feeling.
Kwan said she began to understand the dimensions of artistry while on tour with Champions on Ice in her early teens. Though Champions on Ice puts on shows rather than competitions, Kwan said she learned about competing artistically by watching her more mature peers play to the crowds.
"It was very eye-opening seeing the other skaters performing in front of an audience," she said. "I remember watching Oksana Baiul. She has so much charisma. It didn't matter if she fell seven times. . . . There was just this whole vibe she gave the audience."
Though they eventually learn that artistry is a necessary backdrop, young skaters are more likely to attempt to turn judges' heads with something technically distinctive. Most top skaters have a technical trademark of some sort. Plushenko is the only male skater who can contort his body into the back-breaking Biellman spin. Irina Slutskaya, the defending world champion, is known both for her Biellmans and difficult triple-triple combinations.
Goebel first made headlines at 17 when he became the first man to land a quadruple salchow. In so doing, he beat Weiss to the distinction of becoming the first American to land any quad. Weiss had been so enthusiastic about his quest to become the first man to land a quad lutz, he and his agents held an elaborate news conference, replete with video analysis, to promote the venture.
Kwan's personal specialty is, not surprisingly, an element defined as much by beauty as power. Her inside-edge, outside-edge spirals are considered unrivaled.
"When I was really young I would watch Nancy [Kerrigan], Kristi [Yamaguchi] and Tonya Harding," Kwan said. "Each had a signature something. . . . We [also] wanted something clever. Combining the inside and outside spiral, people started enjoying it and it became part of my short program."
Many young skaters have found that standing out and reaching the top of the standings are two very different endeavors. Japan's Miki Ando, 14, became the first woman to land a quad Salchow at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December. She finished third. At Skate America last October, Yukari Nakano and Ludmila Nelidina landed triple axels, becoming the first women to do so in 10 years.
They finished fifth and seventh, respectively.
"The sport is called figure skating, not figure jumping," Carroll said. "It's fine to do three or four revolutions in the air, but if you can't skate, it doesn't mean a damn thing."