For Kwan, coming of age poses challenge Maturing champion tries to regain form

March 18, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- A champion at 15. A struggling contender at 16.

This is the brave new competitive world that faces Michelle Kwan -- and women's figure skating.

Yesterday, Kwan began to defend her title by winning her bracket in the qualifying round of the World Figure Skating Championships. She landed five triple jumps, missed three, but stayed on her feet, performing just well enough in what amounts to a judged practice session.

The real show begins with Friday's short program. Then, Kwan will have to be fearless and flawless, for the rest of the skating world is fast catching up to her.

The era when reigning champions could simply show up and claim titles is over. The elimination of school figures, combined with a new generation of younger, more athletically gifted performers, means teen-agers now bound up and down the medal podium.

Stars are literally growing up -- and growing old -- in public.

Kwan isn't the only one facing problems. Irina Slutskaya of Russia and Chen Lu of China, the other two returning medalists, were lackluster in yesterday's qualifier.

Kwan, at least, can still dream of a title.

Since last winning the worlds, Kwan has grown an inch and gained five pounds. Now 5 feet 4 and 105 pounds, she has seen her center of gravity shift. The jumps that once came so easily are now difficult. She has lost some of her confidence, too.

There's even a new phenom on the skating block, 14-year-old Tara Lipinski. It was Lipinski who beat Kwan at last month's U.S. championships. And yesterday, Lipinski again outshone her rival, hTC buzzing around the rink to easily win her qualifying bracket.

And there's another American who is starting to look like a potential medalist, 19-year-old Nicole Bobek, who finished second behind Lipinski in their qualifying group.

But for now, Kwan remains the champ.

"It's all about confidence," she said. "Now, I'm trying to grab it, and hold it."

When Kwan fell at last month's nationals, her aura of invincibility was shattered. But if any skater can recover, it's Kwan. She's a millionaire who has visions of going to Harvard. And she still carries around a teddy bear knapsack.

She can analyze the changes in her skating style as she has grown.

"I don't know if it's the changing of the body," she said. "I try to adjust to what I am. I try to get my head stronger, be more aggressive."

She has watched videotapes of performances she gave a few years ago, when she was a tiny, unpolished contender. She claims she now jumps higher. And she is aware of trying to wow a crowd.

"I pay attention to everything," she said. "I don't skate for just myself anymore. I skate for everyone."

Others in the sport have dealt with growth spurts.

"You hit your puberty stage and you grow this way and that," Bobek said. "You grow every way you can imagine. You just have to go through it. It's tough mentally. You think, 'Oh, God, what's going on?' You can't understand it."

"You get hips," Bobek said. "You lose hips. When your body changes, it kind of throws your timing off. You have to learn to overcome."

Kwan is trying to deal with all the pressures. She's trying to defend a title. She's trying to refine her jumps. Her determination has gained her admirers.

"Michelle was the little girl two years ago when she came on the scene," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1956 Olympic champion. "Now, she has to turn over her shoulder say, 'Oh, my gosh, look who's coming [Lipinski].'

"Michelle got scared at nationals and admitted it," Jenkins said. "Now, she'll turn that around and say, 'I'm no longer defending a title. I've got to get Tara Lipinski.' "

Kwan has finished second to Lipinski in two straight competitions. But if she's concerned about another second-place finish, she masks it well.

She said last year's championship is forgotten.

"What I'm trying to accomplish is to get back in shape," she said. "I'm trying to be strong."

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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