Kwan's healthy approach tested Mature perspective aids ex-champ with injury

January 07, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Ever since she first injured her left foot last fall, there have been questions surrounding Michelle Kwan's readiness for this week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships and next month's Olympic Games. Those questions might be answered beginning tomorrow.

When Kwan skates her short program at the Core- States Center, there will be changes in the 160-second routine to compensate for the pain that lingers. And when she skates her long program Saturday night, there will be changes to reflect Kwan's own maturation process.

"When I'm 80 years old, I want to look back and see me. I don't want to look back and see any characters I'm playing," Kwan, 17, said yesterday. "I want to think of something light and free."

There was a time when Kwan was burdened by the pressures of becoming the U.S. and world champion at age 15, as well as by the changes she didn't fully grasp that were going on inside her teen-age body. It resulted in Kwan's losing her titles last year to fellow American Tara Lipinski.

"My coma," Kwan called it.

Seemingly back in sync with her victory over Lipinski at the Skate America competition in late October, Kwan began to feel pain in her foot while winning Skate Canada a couple of weeks later. It was diagnosed as a stress fracture in the joint of one of her toes.

Kwan spent a month in a cast, and then another in practice. She missed two major international competitions, and began to doubt whether she would make it back for the nationals. The low point came around Christmas, when Kwan was unhappy with the way she was skating.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Why did this happen to me?' " she recalled.

It was four years ago that Kwan heard much those same words from another skater. Kwan was getting ready to go on the ice at Cobo Arena in Detroit during practice for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, when she was brushed aside.

The next thing she knew, Nancy Kerrigan was being bashed on the knee with a collapsible baton by associates of Tonya Harding's husband. As Kerrigan lay on the ground, screaming, 'Why me? Why now?' " Kwan looked on in horror.

"I thought to myself, 'This is skating, and this is how it's always been,' " said Kwan. "It changed my life in a very big way."

With Kerrigan sidelined by the injury she sustained in the attack, Kwan finished second to Harding, who was later banned from the sport after the Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, after pleading guilty to conspiracy. Kwan went to the Games as an PTC alternate in the event Kerrigan didn't recover in time.

Kerrigan won the silver medal.

Kwan watched from the stands.

"I remember going to the Olympics and saying, 'People are talking to me!' " said Kwan. "It was very exciting. But it's different when you compete for the gold medal."

Considered the favorite for gold in Nagano before last year, Kwan comes to this year's U.S. championships looking to reverse her position with Lipinski. Their rivalry is polite, but they do not really know each other.

"We're both competitors, and we respect each other," said Kwan.

It will be interesting to see how the judges view Kwan now that she has changed her routine.

Because of the pressure she puts on her left toe pick before jumping, Kwan has eliminated the triple toe loop for a more difficult but less physically stressful triple flip in her short program. She has also gone to a different combination of jumps to ease the pain, and has only one triple toe loop at the end of her long program.

"I think the triple toe is a lot easier, but it's not an option I have right now," she said.

Frank Carroll, Kwan's longtime coach, said that she didn't have any pain in the foot at practice here Monday night. But those who watched Kwan skate early yesterday said that she fell twice trying to do the flip, a jump she went away from a couple of years ago.

In the past, Kwan might have let that affect her. But her perspective began to change at last year's world championships, when in the span of a few days she learned about the death of world-renowned skating coach Carlo Fassi and the cancer of former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton.

"I know now that it's not life and death," Kwan said a couple of months ago.

Not that she doesn't think about winning here or in Nagano next month. But it doesn't consume her as it did before.

"What we try to do is think of it [the Olympics] as another competition," said Carroll. "Thinking about the gold is crazy. People asking her all the time, 'Are you going to win the gold?' It's such a destructive environment. We don't mention the gold."

Kwan smiled.

"We dream of gold," she said. "This is my dream, to be here right now, to talk about how I feel. To me, the Olympics are like a wonderland, like Disneyland."

But she isn't playing a character. She is just being herself.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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