In life where ice never melts, Kwan's blades gather no rust

Between competition, touring, down time rare for one of sport's greats

Figure Skating

April 04, 2003|By Amy Rosewater | Amy Rosewater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michelle Kwan should have little to worry about these days. She captured her fifth world figure skating title last week in Washington, so the hard part should, in theory, be over.

It's not.

After the world championships, Kwan spent a few days relaxing in Arizona, only to come back to the East Coast to perform in the Tom Collins Champions on Ice tour. The tour will open tonight at the 1st Mariner Arena.

Show skating should be the easy part of her life, but this time, it's not. She's unveiling a new routine to the song Fallin' by pop artist Alicia Keys.

Because she was preparing so hard for the world championships, Kwan didn't have much time to work on an exhibition number. She had just a month to choreograph the routine and planned her first full practice of it last night.

"It's hard," Kwan said yesterday morning as she searched for a cup of coffee to keep her awake. "It's nerve-racking, actually. At competitions, I have to do all those triple jumps, but I know what I'm getting into. Here, on tour, I'm not really familiar with this program at all."

Most athletes have offseasons. There are All-Star breaks and Pro Bowls, but no show business in between. Not so in figure skating, where the stars go straight from competition to whirlwind national tours. Many of the skaters in Baltimore this week for rehearsals haven't even had a chance to go home.

A week ago, Kwan was competing against the likes of Olympian Sasha Cohen, Russian world silver medalist Elena Sokolova and Japan's Fumie Suguri, a two-time world bronze medalist. From now until June, Kwan will be performing along with them on tour.

Irina Slutskaya, who beat Kwan in the 2002 world championships, sat out the Washington competition to be with her ailing mother in Russia, but will perform on tour. Imagine Barry Bonds and Troy Percival on Broadway a week after the World Series.

The only one of Kwan's top competitors who won't be here is Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, who yesterday announced that she won't be touring this spring.

"It's different being in shows than competing," said Kwan, 22. "It's not as intense, but you still have to prepare as if it was a job, because you still have to deliver the goods. The audience is going to be watching you."

Kwan said she enjoys the show life, but she's an athlete first and foremost. Her five world titles put her in an elite group. Only two other Americans have ever won five world championships: Carol Heiss and Dick Button. Kwan also has seven national titles to her credit.

"I haven't even been able to really think about it yet," Kwan said. "Five-time world champion - the thought about that is still passing through me. I didn't even get a chance to celebrate it. The day after I won, I had to do an exhibition and then I was in Arizona. Now I have the tour."

The medals are nice, but Kwan has always longed to be a skating legend. Her longevity, perseverance and victories have made her one of the most popular skaters of her time. She doesn't even keep her medals or trophies in her home. Her mom keeps them on display in the basement of her home in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

"Whenever my friends come over, I try to sneak them in," Kwan said. "I tell them, `Don't go down to the basement.' It's not about the medals."

The only medal missing from Kwan's collection is the Olympic gold. She was disappointed twice, in 2002 when she earned the bronze and in 1998 when Tara Lipinski pulled off an incredible upset for the gold, leaving Kwan with the silver.

"I don't feel crushed," Kwan said. "There are so many things I've taken from my experiences. It makes you who you are."

Kwan said she hasn't decided yet about competing in the 2006 Olympics. She hasn't even made up her mind about the 2003-04 season, for that matter. She'll make that decision after the tour.

Right now, she's worried about her show program. In between costume fittings, media interviews, practice and an attempt to take a nap, Kwan is hoping her new routine will somehow come together when the curtain is drawn tonight.

"Last year was pretty stressful leading up to the Olympics," she said. "And it really was the same this year with nationals. It's always been like that for me. I always get butterflies.

"And I'll have them again here."

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