Like angel, she glides, soars, wins

January 11, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PHILADELPHIA -- What's this, a human and not a robot? In women's figure skating? The sport of fragile teen-agers and pretentious adults? Nah, couldn't be.

Well, here comes Michelle Kwan, a revelation on ice.

She didn't come pre-packaged. She comes with a beating heart, functioning brain and emerging soul.

Kwan, 17, put it all on display last night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, delivering an elegant, inspired, courageous performance that brought the sellout crowd at the CoreStates Center to its feet.

"When I got out there, I just saw the crowd and I was listening to the music," Kwan told ABC after earning her second national title in three years. "I thought of angels and clouds."

The music flowed through her, and Kwan was so sharp, she added a triple toe loop, the jump she has been avoiding because of a fractured left middle toe.

In basketball terms, she finished with a dunk.

"I was nailing everything," Kwan said, "landing everything with a smile."

For Kwan, it's almost a shame that the Olympics are a month away. But if she keeps skating this well, she'll be an even bigger smash in Nagano.

Kwan scored seven perfect scores of 6.0 in Thursday's short program, and added eight more in the long program last night.

She and her coach, Frank Carroll, had a contest before she took the ice, extending their arms to see whose hands were shaking least.

Kwan won that, then gave "the performance of my life -- right now."

Was it the free skate of her dreams?

"In my dreams," Kwan said, "I see myself not winning a medal, but just flying."

Where have you gone, Tonya and Nancy?

Who cares?

Both Kwan and Tara Lipinski are infinitely more appealing than our previous two ice princesses, one surrounded by hit men, the other crying, "Why me?"

Lipinski, 15, is an adorable sprite with a warrior's spirit. Kwan is even more endearing, as graceful as Peggy Fleming, as engaging as Dorothy Hamill.

She skates with exuberance and passion, athleticism and artistry. She skates, to quote the title of her autobiography, with "The Heart of a Champion."

You saw the joy in her face after she landed her triple flip in the short program. You saw it again when she put her hand over her heart and threw her head back in exultation when her scores were announced last night.

The crowd started chanting, "Six! Six!" almost immediately, and Kwan pumped her fist in rhythm, laughing. She waved and blew kisses and gave a thumbs-up, clutching a red Elmo doll.

She's only two years older than Lipinski, yet it seems like 20 years.

Kwan is human, all right.

She laughs. She cries. She lives. She learns.

She won the U.S. and world titles in 1996, then spent '97 trying not to lose. She became frightened and confused. She rTC compared herself to a spider caught in a web. And she couldn't beat Lipinski.

Now she is back, back despite the fractured toe, back with a greater sense of self and healthier outlook.

She skates because she loves to skate. Period.

Kwan was in a funk for most of '97, but the death of esteemed coach Carlo Fassi, followed by the news that former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton was suffering from testicular cancer, helped her regain her perspective.

"A combination jump," she said, "wasn't life and death."

She rebounded from a crushing performance in the U.S. Championships to finish second at the worlds, and just like that, rediscovered her love for the sport.

It was one thing last year when Kwan portrayed the biblical seductress, Salome, ditching her plain face and ponytail for lipstick and hair piled high.

That was a forced maturity, one to impress the judges.

This is different.

Kwan skated last night in a simple, understated light blue dress. She was a portrait of grace, gliding across the ice to "Lyra Angelica," as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

"I was looking into music early last year," Kwan said. "I thought, 'When I'm 80 years old and looking back, I want to see me. I don't want to see Salome. I don't want to see any character. I want to see me.' "

Who is she?

The daughter of a father born in China and a mother born in Hong Kong. An 11th-grader with a 3.8 grade-point average and dreams of attending Harvard. A skater who aspired to greatness from the age of 5.

"If you saw me when I was little, you wouldn't have thought I was anything special," she wrote in her autobiography. "If I had a 'spark,' like some people say I did, it wasn't in the way I jumped or spun. It was a spark in my heart."

That spark, missing last year, ignited the CoreStates Center on Thursday, and set it on fire last night.

"This moment is so special right now," Kwan said. "Two months ago, I was in a cast not skating, taking one step at a time back on the ice. For me to win this championship, it's amazing."

She's Kwan, as in swan.

An angel in the clouds.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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