Everything fell into place at the moment when I everything seemed to be most up in the air, when the I 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?
The questions gave rise to doubts. Why is this happening to me? Kwan asked herself during Christmastime. Why am I struggling with the triple flip, a jump I've been landing since I was 11?
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.
Then, the transformation. "Most skaters are nervous and tight waiting around before they go out," says Lori Nichol, who choreographs Kwan's programs, "but Michelle didn't look like that at all. She was completely living in the moment. She didn't just want to perform—she was reveling in it. I could tell when she stepped on the ice that this was going to be something special."
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 skating—at least two of the judges at the nationals had never given one to a singles skater—and 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 long—both those performances have to be said in the same breath—I 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."
By raising the bar so high so close to the Olympics, the 5'2", 106-pound Kwan is back where, two years ago, she was expected to be on the eve of the Nagano Games: the prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal. Fifteen-year-old Tara Lipinski, who snatched away the U.S. and world titles when Kwan faltered in 1997, becomes just one more underdog hoping to capitalize on a mistake. Yes, injury or illness or an untimely fall could open the door for Lipinski or perhaps Russia's Irina Slutskaya or Germany's Tanja Szewczenko. But irrefutably the Olympics now shape up as a battle between Kwan and herself.
It has been that way most of Kwan's life, so great was her talent as a child. Kwan stalled 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.