American figure skaters are not expected make a serious run for the gold medal in the men's competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics. But the U.S. women's team is much stronger, anchored by veteran Michelle Kwan. VOA's Jim Stevenson has this profile of one of the most talented skaters in the world.
Like most top skaters, Michelle Kwan was on the ice at an early age. Born in Torrance, California, she began skating with her sister Karen when she was just five-years-old. When she was 13, Kwan was selected as an alternate on the U.S. squad that went to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. She was an Olympic favorite four-years later in Nagano, where she claimed a silver medal.
At age 21, Kwan is a six-time U.S. national champion, four-time world champion, and about to skate in her second Olympics. Kwan says her fans have grown up with her.
"When I started skating, my philosophy was always to do something different, to make skating more artistic," she says. "So I chose music that people were not familiar with. Over the years, people have a hold on the program through my skating. And now the music is there and people are familiar with it. So I am able to skate with it and people understand it."
Although Michelle Kwan's style of performance has evolved, she says she will not make dramatic differences in her skating at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
"[People ask] It is the Olympic year, what are you going to do? Is you hair going to being different? I mean, it is no different. It is just a normal year [and] you go about it. It is just slightly different," she says.
What is different about Kwan is her desire to remain an amateur skater. At the Nagano Games in 1998, Kwan was edged off the top of the podium by then 15-year-old American Tara Lipinski. Kwan continued to skate in amateur events while Lipinski quickly moved to the lucrative professional circuit. Kwan says she enjoys the sport itself and the opportunity to win titles.
"I thought if I turn professional, I have no more chances, no more amateur competitions," says Michelle. "And I realized that the Olympics is not a big deal because it is the process, it is the four years. Yes, I of course have wanted to look forward to 2002, but also there was the Nationals [championships], and the Worlds, very important competitions. If I turned professional, then somebody else would be 2000 and 2001 world champions."
Since 1992, Michelle Kwan had skated under the tutelage of coach Frank Carroll. But she split from Carroll in October in an effort to further evolve her style, hopefully resulting in an Olympic gold medal. Kwan's new routine showed the same precision and grace displayed through the years as she earned her latest U.S. national title January 12.
But Kwan says her overall view of life is what helps her to skate well.
"It is hard to say what confidence is. Is it what you do on the ice? Is it experience? But I know that I have been able to put everything in perspective with going to school, with juggling lots of things, and actually competing for so many years," she says. "After this, after skating, I have to move on with my life because there is more to life than just skating. So you just have got to appreciate what you have now and know that this is not going to last forever."
Kwan's desire to win Olympic gold began when she watched the 1988 Winter Games at the age of eight. She saw American Brian Boitano win the men's title with his energetic and enthusiastic style. Kwan says that inspiration makes her appreciate her inclusion on the U.S. team.
She also appreciates the need to protect her ability to compete.
"I think the one thing that athletes have to worry about is getting injured. Physically you are pushed to the limit," she explains. "You can not keep pushing yourself and pushing yourself. You have to be careful of injuries and know your limitations. Last year was perfect timing [for me] at the Nationals and the Worlds. It just got better and better, until the Worlds when I hit my peak. You just hope that you are going to be in shape and not catch any colds, be physically and mentally tough at that time."
She will again face competition from longtime Russian rival Irina Slutskaya while holding off younger American teammates. Seventeen-year-old Sasha Cohen placed second at the U.S. national championships while 16-year-old Sara Hughes placed third.
Hughes beat Kwan and Slutskaya at the Skate Canada competition earlier this season. Cohen, meanwhile, is hoping to make Olympic history by becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. Despite the pressure from her peers and the eventual outcome, Kwan says she will have fun.
"If this is going to be my last Olympics, I do not know if it is, [but] you have to cherish every moment," she says.
Michelle Kwan plans to include more difficult jumps in her Olympic programs than she did at the U.S. Championships with the hope of capturing the elusive gold medal.