For Kwan, fun at hand, elusive gold within reach

Favored figure skater downplays pressure to top Nagano silver

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 19, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - Eight years ago, Michelle Kwan was a quiet, shy 13-year-old who barely got asked a question in her first Olympic news conference.

For whatever reason, all anyone wanted to talk about was two women named Tonya and Nancy.

About 10,000 questions and 800 news conferences later, all anyone wants to talk about is Michelle Kwan. Intelligent and well-spoken, Kwan remains one of the few figure skaters still able to maintain a sense of normalcy in a sport so often dominated by the absurd. She's back for her third Olympics, once again as a gold-medal favorite, her recognizable face plastered on buildings and billboards all over town.

After isolating herself in Nagano, Japan, four years ago, skipping the opening ceremony and showing up only for her competition, Kwan wanted to let her hair down during these Olympics. She stayed at the Olympic Village the past two weeks, met new people and took in as many events as she could. There will be pressure on her as the figure skating competition begins tonight with the short program, but if it's getting to her, Kwan isn't betraying a thing.

"This doesn't last for the rest of your life, and you have to understand that," Kwan said. "You have to enjoy it while you can. Some day, I'll be talking to my grandkids and saying, `Do you know how many reporters were at my Olympic press conference?' ... Every bit of it is still fun for me."

Regardless, Kwan was extremely disappointed in Nagano when her skating was excellent, but perceived as less than daring by the judges. She won the silver medal behind American Tara Lipinski. Already famous and a millionaire several times over, Kwan didn't turn professional, training the past four years with only this competition in mind. She jettisoned her longtime coach, Frank Carroll, just recently, hoping to go out on her own and snag the one major title she hasn't won. And though she acknowledges it's important, she's unwilling to do so without a caveat.

"At this moment, at this time, it's the greatest thing in the whole world," Kwan said. "But you have to live life with no regrets. Sometimes things don't turn out great. Will [a gold medal] complete me as a person? I wish I could say it would, because I'd be the happiest person on Earth. But yet, how come the richest and most famous people aren't the happiest people on Earth?"

Like Nagano, there will be plenty of skaters poised to keep the gold out of Kwan's grasp. Russia's Irina Slutskaya, a three-time world silver medalist and four-time European champion, will be Kwan's most dangerous competitor. Slutskaya is one of the best jumpers in the world, has closed the gap between the two skaters in recent years and sounds confident she can beat Kwan on American soil.

"It doesn't matter where you skate, it's how you skate," Slutskaya said. "Why wouldn't the spectators cheer for me? The people also like Russian skaters. For me, it's harder to compete in your own country, because there is more pressure."

Americans Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen also will be serious medal threats, and both have the potential to skate two excellent programs and win gold. Few skaters possess Hughes' artistry, and almost no one jumps in the same league as Cohen.

"I don't want to think about winning or anything, but I know I would like to go home with a medal," Hughes said. "I know I have confidence in my skating and I'm here to skate well."

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