Sports

Kwan seeks fourth world crown

It's quiet, even lonely, in the nearly empty practice rink.

The only early morning sound is of a solitary skater and her coach working on the approach to a jump.

It's hardly glamorous. Yet this is the most important part of any athlete's preparation.

This is when Michelle Kwan gets her work done.

"When you practise like this every day, you try to prepare the body physically for whatever could happen," Kwan said. "If anything happens, you are prepared for it almost like a robot.

"But sometimes your brain gets in there and has an effect, too. I have jumped so many times, done triple lutz after triple lutz, so shouldn't I know my right arm should not swing, or the right height I have to get to rotate the jump?

"How many more times can I do a triple lutz? But you keep on reminding your body how to do it every day.

"You have to. And your spirit has to come along with your being a robot, because when you skate like a dead horse, nothing happens."

Kwan laughs heartily at that picture.

She knows she is a thoroughbred, a five-time American champion and Olympic silver medallist who will seek her fourth world title in Vancouver, starting Sunday.

And she knows it'll be a challenge.

Russian Irina Slutskaya has made a habit of beating Kwan recently, although Kwan rallied to beat Slutskaya at the 2000 world championships.

But Slutskaya defeated Kwan just last month at the Grand Prix finals.

So Kwan skates twice daily most days and is on the ice seven days a week.

"Some things you know you have to tread through and it's worth treading through them," Kwan says. "If you want something bad enough, it is worth the wait and the work."

What does Kwan want most? She doesn't need to search for an answer.

"Everyone wants to be the best," she says. "But there is only one spot each time.

"That's just the way competition is."

THE WORKER

Frank Carroll, who also coaches American men's champion Timothy Goebel, stands by the sideboards and tells Kwan to repeat her approach to the triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination. She does, but two-foots the second jump. So Carroll has her do it again. And again after another two-footed landing. Finally, after four tries, Kwan nails it. There is no exultation, no discernible sense of relief, either. Kwan moves on to another element, but eventually returns to land another clean combination. "I think I have more understanding, but I don't think it's become easier," she says. "When I was younger, I was just confused on, `Why can't I do this?' "Now, I can say, `Oh, because of this and this I didn't do it.' " The work isn't limited to the ice, of course. Kwan rides a stationary bike, walks on a treadmill or uses an elliptical trainer for 30 minutes four days a week. She also lifts weights, concentrating on the upper body. Her typical diet features fish, chicken, pasta and plenty of vegetables. She isn't exactly sculpted at five-foot-two, 105 pounds, but unlike many skaters her age, her 20-year-old body hasn't come close to betraying her. Nor has her desire to compete. Or just plain skate. "There are many little things in skating I cherish," she says. "Sure, there are the world championships and the nationals, but also just skating every day and having the ability to glide over the ice and hurl yourself up in the air. "Some day, I am like, 'I really don't want to do this.' And then I get on the ice and it just makes me understand why I am doing it."

THE STUDENT

Kwan attends UCLA two days a week, taking five credits in English composition. She limits her on-ice time on those days to one intense session with Carroll, and skates more leisurely on weekends. She owns a condo near the El Segundo complex where the Lakers and Kings also work out, although she did live in a UCLA dorm during the 1999 fall semester. She isn't sure where her studies will take her, but she likes being just another student. "There's no special treatment, especially from the professors," she said. "It's a different social life completely at UCLA. "When you are younger, you're only hanging out with skaters, and it was sheltered. For a few years, I felt I did miss things, like I wished I could have a sleepover or things like that. "But it's not like my skating friends weren't important to me. It wasn't like I was locked up in a dungeon." Kwan is well-organized, which she says has prevented a struggle with the demands of combining school and skating. "I like being on a set schedule," she says. "It's like having this file on what I am going to do next. "But it's still difficult because when I'm done skating, it opens doors to the unknown and it worries me a little bit. Everyone says, 'Why? You have such a bright future.' But like anybody going to school, you ask what you will do for the rest of your life. I'm positive I won't be skating for the rest of my life."

THE CHAMPION

Kwan has won as many American titles as Peggy Fleming and Tenley Albright, and one more than Carol Heiss, all Olympic gold medallists. Her three world titles are as many as Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski managed combined. "A lot of the dreams I have had in skating have come true," she said. "I remember as a very young kid, the year before I went on tour with Champions on Ice, I said it would be so amazing to be on tour. "And the next year, I was." By 1994, she was almost as famous as Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Kwan was placed in the middle of that soap opera after finishing second at the U.S. championships. If Kerrigan didn't recover from her injuries or Harding was barred from going to the Lillehammer Games, Kwan would compete. She wound up going to Norway and watching from the stands. But just about everyone knew who she was. And in 1996, she began her run of championships. "I always wanted to be a legend in skating, be remembered," she says. "To do that, you have to stand out -- win a lot of Olympic championships. "So you have to pretend early on, `I'm going to win three straight, then I'll be remembered, be a legend.' "So I always thought I'd stay in the sport and try to win them."

THE SILVER MEDALLIST

Kwan headed to the 1998 Nagano Olympics as the favourite, her only realistic challenger being Lipinski. After they finished 1-2 in the short program, Kwan skated a clean but tepid program in the free skate. Lipinski's fire and technical superiority earned her the gold. The silver medallist cried. "Sometimes you have to let your emotions go," Kwan says. "I felt like I really wanted to go there and come home with the gold, like you dream of everything, of doing the performance of your life." Her perspective on the Nagano Games changed very quickly. She recalled how Paul Wylie "skated his brains out" in 1992 for a surprise silver medal. Why, she wondered, did people perceive her having lost the gold and not winning the silver? "People would come up to me and say they were sorry," Kwan says, shaking her head. "They would apologize to me. "But it was not like I was there and I had something to lose. I didn't have a gold medal and then they took it away and gave me a silver. "If I didn't go to Japan and compete, I'd have nothing. I still had the experience to take home."

THE STAR

Few American female athletes are more recognizable or in demand than Kwan -- not even Lipinski, who turned pro soon after Nagano and is headlining the Stars on Ice tour. Perhaps soccer star Mia Hamm and tennis's Williams sisters are more famous. Serena Williams and Kwan, incidentally, are good friends, although while Kwan plays recreational tennis, Serena wants no part of the ice after once trying to skate and "falling really hard." Kwan is a spokeswoman for Chevrolet (yes, she drives one, a Tahoe); AIM Funds; Walt Disney Television (she has a contract for four television specials); and Disney Publishing Worldwide (a deal for eight children's books). She also has done endorsements for Campbell's Soups, Yoplait Yogurt, Caress, and United Airlines. She has an interactive video game and has done three books for Scholastic Inc. Yet, asked about her fame, Kwan says she is surprised when recognized in a mall or restaurant. "I don't know if it's stardom," she says. "I am comfortable as long as they don't make me uncomfortable. "When you meet someone and if you feel in awe of what they have done, then that awe goes away, because you find out they are normal people. The only thing I do special is when I am on the ice." By now, signing autographs has become second nature for Kwan. She claims it never grows tiresome. Nor does she tire of being regarded as a role model. "A lot of parents come up to me and say, `My kids look up to you . . . you inspired them, and not only in skating, but with their school work.' And it's a great feeling they look up to me like I looked up to Brian Boitano or anybody that you are just in awe of or want to be like."

THE RIVALRY

Lipinski and Kwan provided the elements for one of the great skating rivalries in recent years. But it lasted just two seasons. Now, Kwan has another rival in Slutskaya, who has yet to win a world title but will be a co-favourite in Vancouver. "Michelle is a wonderful skater and competitor," Slutskaya says. "To beat her is very rewarding." Kwan enjoys having someone on her level. First, it was China's Lu Chen. Then it was Lipinski, followed by 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya of Russia. Now, there is Slutskaya. "It pushes you," Kwan says. "It makes you want to be better. "It is apparent through all the competitions that there is a rivalry. In anyone's perspective, even as a judge you break it down and there is Irina and Maria and myself -- we are the veterans. And all three of us have been up there for a while." Kwan's most fulfilling world title came last year, when she surged from third place after the short program. She called her free skate the best performance of her life, and it silenced the critics who pointed to less-than-stellar showings at nationals and the Grand Prix final. Those critics claimed she was losing interest in the sport by attending college and branching out. "I questioned myself," she admits. "But you have to learn to deal with it, because that's going to come up the rest of your life. "I had to prove something to myself. People were thinking, `Her priorities have shifted.' But I just added things that I made a priority." Almost from the day she arrived in Nice, France, for the 2000 world championships and saw her Russian rival, Kwan perked up. "I knew I can do better than what I had done," she says. "It gave me a goal, a thing to reach for."

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD

The winner of this year's world championships will be in an enviable position. The last four world champions heading into the Olympics (Katarina Witt, Yamaguchi, Oksana Baiul, Lipinski) all took home gold medals from the Games. For Kwan, there are many incentives to win in Salt Lake City. The Olympics are in the United States, she barely missed the gold in Nagano and her desire to be "legendary." But even if she'd won gold in '98, Kwan said she would still be skating. "When I was younger, I thought I'd stay in it for a long time -- hopefully 1994, '98, 2002, even 2006," she says. "But I haven't gone beyond 2002." The Olympics hardly are the only challenge ahead. There is another world outside the rink. "It's so hard to tell what's ahead," Kwan says. "Maybe I'll be married. "Maybe at 28, I'll start a family. Somewhere along the line, you have to move on. There are other things in life."

By Barry Wilner