It was left to China's 19-year-old Chen Lu, the defending champion, to force the best out of Kwan. An ethereal, long-limbed presence, Chen seems to blow over the ice like a leaf. After finishing a close second to Kwan in the short program, Chen elegantly threw down the gauntlet with a mesmerizing performance last Saturday in which she landed six triple jumps, including two in combination. That earned her two perfect 6.0s, the first of her career. As the scores were read over the public-address system, Kwan, who had not yet skated, couldn't help but hear them as she and her coach, Frank Carroll, hid in the flower girls' room, trying to find some peace. "I thought, Oh, god, I'll have to do a quadruple toe loop to win," Kwan said later, joking. "Then I got myself down to earth and said, Just go for it. Go for everything. Why not?"
Carroll told her that the judges had left a tiny window, and to believe in herself and her program. Others knew she had to be perfect, and even that might not be enough. But this young woman from Torrance, Calif., is a flower with steel inside, and she was in Edmonton to win. To help persuade judges she was no longer the little girl they had placed fourth in 1995, Kwan and Carroll had orchestrated a makeover of her image during the year. Her ponytail was jettisoned in favor of the braided-bun look—an elaborate process that involves handweaving her hair into a tight coil with yarn. Carroll also persuaded Kwan's parents to allow her to wear eye makeup on the ice. "In the Chinese-American culture, young girls don't wear makeup. I told them we're not going to the schoolyard here. If you were in the ballet performing in front of thousands of people, you'd wear makeup. It's part of the shtick."
None of which would have helped a whit if Kwan's skating hadn't also matured, a process that was speeded up when Kwan toured with Boitano and other professionals last spring. "Great skating breeds great skating," Carroll said. Poised, assured, steadier on her landings than Chen, she, too, landed six triple jumps, two in combination. She, too, was mesmerizing, mature, elegant. That a 15-year-old should present such an image was almost beyond belief. Then in the final seconds, Kwan showed the presence of mind to add a triple toe jump. It was an option she and Carroll had devised in the event that she settled for a triple-double combination early in the program instead of the hoped-for triple-triple. It gave her one more triple than Chen, a tiny technical edge. The crowd leaped to its feet, and Kwan burst into tears. "The emotions took over when I realized this was the world championships and I'd just skated the best I ever had in my life," she said later. The judges rewarded her with a pair of 6.0s and seven 5.9s. Kwan had won six judges to Chen's three, becoming the third-youngest ladies' champion, after Sonia Henie in 1927 and Oksana Baiul in '93.
No one could remember a world championship in which two women were each awarded two perfect marks, but everyone agreed they deserved them. "I never saw two performances like that in my life," said USFSA chief Stillwell. "For Michelle to add that jump in the last seconds, that's sport."
There was plenty of that on display last weekend in wintry Edmonton.