Everything fell into place at the moment when everything seemed to be most up in the air, when the questions about Michelle Kwan's injured foot, her training and her confidence were swarming about her like so many wasps. Was she in pain? Had the stress fracture in the second toe of her left foot fully healed? After having been in a cast most of November, would she be in shape for the U.S. nationals in Philadelphia and ready to compete? If she withdrew, as she'd been forced to do from the Champions Series Final in mid-December, would she be guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team?
Kwan didn't sleep well the night before her short program at the nationals on Jan. 8, brooding over all these concerns. Then she overslept and missed her morning practice. She never missed practice. In a life that had been meticulously scripted to lead up to a gold medal performance at the 1998 Olympics, suddenly nothing was going as planned.
Under the most pressure-filled of circumstances, before a national television audience, with a spot on the Olympic team and a national championship at stake, the 17-year-old Kwan skated with an assurance and grace that had some judges in tears and others holding their breath. Kwan earned seven 6.0s in artistic presentation for her short program. Two nights later, when most observers assumed she would settle back to earth, she was awarded eight more perfect artistic marks for her long program. Sixes are rare in skatingat least two of the judges at the nationals had never given one to a singles skaterand Kwan's total of 15 was by far the most ever given to anyone at the nationals. She had redefined the horizons of her sport.
Kwan's showing in Philadelphia was akin to Secretariat's winning by 31 lengths at the Belmont or Tiger Woods's running away from the field at the Masters by 12 strokes. "It was one of the most magnificent short programs I've ever seen," says Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic champion, who is now a top coach. "But then to do it again in the longboth those performances have to be said in the same breathI can't remember anyone doing that."
"I was crying during her long program, sure," says Nichol. "The people around me were crying, too. That's what you hope to do with a program. They were enraptured by what Michelle was doing on the ice."
"She has a unique style," says Linda Leaver, who is Brian Boitano's coach. "It's ethereal and feminine. She seems to float over the ice. She hovers and skims, so you aren't aware of her digging into the ice to get the height that she does on her jumps. Michelle did one of the most technically difficult programs out there, but that's not what you took away from it. She made the difficult look easy."
It has been that way most of Kwan's life, so great was her talent as a child. Kwan started skating at age five at a rink near her family's house in Torrance, Calif. Her sister, Karen, who is two years older, started skating about the same time and also showed promise. Before long, their parents, Danny and Estella, were driving them two hours every weekend to the famous training center at Lake Arrowhead, where the family stayed in a friend's vacation home, and Michelle and Karen took lessons as often as the family could afford. When Michelle watched Boitano win the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, she vowed to skate in the '94 Games. She would be all of 13.
Estella and Danny wanted to do all they could to help Michelle fulfill her dreams, but they had one big concern. "For me it was a money issue," recalls Danny, 49, a chain-smoking, philosophical man who before taking early retirement in 1995 worked as a systems analyst for Pacific Bell by day and then helped out at the Golden Pheasant, the family's Chinese restaurant. (Estella, who is from Hong Kong, also worked at the restaurant until she moved to Arrowhead. The restaurant, which was sold last summer, was owned by Michelle's paternal grandparents, who, like her father, were born in China. Her grandparents speak mainly Cantonese, a dialect that Michelle can understand but does not speak fluently.)
Issue date: February 9, 1998
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