She's Got Next
Michelle Kwan won her third title at the U.S. championships, but 13-year-old runner-up Naomi Nari Nam stole the show
"It's always somebody," Danny Kwan said with a tortured sigh, minutes after his daughter Michelle won her second straight national championship and her third in four years. Why, in the moment of victory, was her dad wearing the long face? He had just glimpsed the future—he and 6,571 fans in Salt Lake City's Delta Center, plus a national television audience—and it must have looked suspiciously like the past.
The past, of course, was Kwan-slayer Tara Lipinski, who in 1996 burst on the scene at age 13, dethroned Kwan as the U.S. and world champ at 14, then snatched the gold medal from Kwan at the Nagano Olympics at 15. Before Kwan could say "Tara's tutu," her young nemesis had high-tailed it to the pros, leaving Kwan no one to compete with but herself.
Or so people thought until last Saturday night's breakthrough by another tiny (4'8") 13-year-old, Naomi Nari Nam of Irvine, Calif. "I've been around so long, I'm not easy to impress," said former U.S. Figure Skating Association president Morry Stillwell, "but before she had even finished, I was jumping out of my chair."
He wasn't alone. By the time Nari Nam was midway through her closing combination spin, the crowd was roaring approval from its feet. The doll-like Nari Nam had landed five triple jumps and unleashed an array of breathtaking spins, all the while dazzling fans with a natural, high-voltage smile. "She enjoys audiences," says her coach, John Nicks. "She's extremely musical and has an originality that's very exciting."
She is also so young that even if she had upset Kwan—Nari Nam finished second to the Olympic silver medalist on the cards of all nine judges-she would still have been ineligible to compete in next month's world championships in Helsinki. If the rules aren't changed, she'll be too young again in 2000. But in 2002, when the Olympics come to Salt Lake City, Nari Nam will be primed to knock off her idol.
Kwan, who skated beautifully except for a fall on a triple Lutz, can see the potential in her young rival. "I've worked with her a little," Kwan says, "and you can see it in her eyes. She definitely has it in her."
Which, in a funny way, may help keep the 18-year-old Kwan from losing interest in the 2002 Games and turning pro. Before the worlds, even friends such as Brian Boitano were expressing doubt that she could stay motivated for another three years.
There's a life out there beyond skating that Kwan is longing to explore. Her older sister, Karen, is a junior at Boston University, and Michelle talks to her almost daily about college life. What's it like to eat pizza anytime she wants? To stay up late talking to friends? To live away from the 'rents? These are dizzying freedoms to an iceaholic like Kwan. She has applied to Harvard, Stanford and UCLA and has considered taking a year off from serious training to recharge her batteries.
Suddenly, though, that possibility seems more remote. "I want to improve," says Kwan, whose jumps are bigger than ever this year and who landed a triple toe-triple toe combination on Saturday night that, had she done it at the Olympics, probably would have won her the gold. "If I still have that flame burning inside me and my legs are healthy, I'll be out here."