The judges have noticed. In the four competitions in which they have faced each other since September (the Goodwill Games, Masters of Figure Skating, Skate Canada and the ISU Grand Prix Finals), Slutskaya's presentation marks have been on a par with or better than Kwan's. Meanwhile, she has maintained a clear technical edge.
Kwan, a year younger than Slutskaya, has been going sideways as a skater. Most observers, in fact—noting that she has lost speed in the past four years and that the joy seems to have been wrung out of her skating—would say she has slipped. Unable to learn the triple Salchow-triple loop combination, which she had been trying to master for two years in an effort to keep pace technically with Slutskaya and the U.S.'s Sarah Hughes, Kwan fired her longtime coach Frank Carroll this fall. Unwilling or unable to replace him, she has gone it alone since then, relying on her father, Danny, who as far as anyone knows cannot skate, as her primary adviser. Asked when the last time an Olympic athlete in any sport competed without a coach, Kwan's agent, Shep Goldberg, replied, "It's never been done to my knowledge. Michelle's going to write the book on it."
That'll be one small tome. The biggest change Kwan has made since firing Carroll has been to bring back the short program she used in the 1998 Olympic season, in which she skates to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. Paul Wylie, the '92 men's silver medalist, has compared Kwan's return to Rachmaninoff to a fashion designer recycling a spring line four years after its debut. The critics—in this case, the judges—are apt to agree.
Still, at the U.S. nationals, in January, Kwan skated well, if cautiously, not even attempting a triple-triple combination. Slutskaya knows the only competition that matters in 2002 is still ahead. "Today I win. Tomorrow Michelle may win. Sarah Hughes will compete with us too," Slutskaya says of the 16-year-old American who beat her and Kwan in November at Skate Canada. "It's nice. I love it. It's sport. I can't have mistakes. Both Sarah and Michelle will do well. I'm sure of it. They're very strong. I need to fight for my place."
Better step back, ladies.