Michelle Kwan's
Epic Quest


     After the letdown of Salt Lake City, Kwan had to contend with a second place finish at the World Championships at Nagano on March 22, 2002. She put in a clean performance except for two-footing a landing at the end of a triple toe-triple toe combo. Irinia Slutskaya landed six triples to take her first World Championship in seven tries. By comparison, Kwan had won four World championships, three consecutively. Despite the two Olympic mishaps, few doubted that Michelle Kwan was the world's best figure skater, the odds-on favorite to win any given event on any given day. Even that second-place finish gave her a new record of being the first American woman to win seven medals at the World Championship -- a medal in all but two appearances.

     Nevertheless, it was a disappointing end to a hugely disappointing 2001-2002 season.


     “It has been a long season,” Kwan admitted. “I had to take one thing after another after the Olympics. I know I love to compete. I know for sure I don't want to turn pro, but I don't know how much I want to do.”

     But by that summer Kwan had made up her mind to keep competing and decided that she needed someone to provide feedback on what she was doing on the ice. She asked Scott Williams, a friend of many years.

     “I just said “Hey Scott, do you mind if you come to the rink and just help me out tomorrow morning?’” Kwan said during a conference she called October 23, 2002 to announce that she was naming Scott Williams her new coach. “So he came in, and it's just been gradual with him coming in more and more and becoming my coach.&rduqo;

     “Having Scott around the rink is nice because I can have a voice on the ice,” Kwan explained Williams's role. ”A lot of times it's not how you feel, it's what you're doing on the ice. Sometimes I feel great and I don't skate well, so I need [to ask someone] ‘What did I do wrong here?’”

     The press asked her to revisit her decision to fire Frank Carroll the previous October. She all but admitted that it was a mistake.

     “Not having coaches is very new,” she explained. ”I think all skaters should try it once. It was a learning experience. It was important, and it is important, to have a coach to guide you in the right direction.”

     But she refused to express regret, even if the mistake may have cost her the gold medal. “I felt at that time that's what I needed,” she said.

     And of course Kwan was asked to revisit her feelings about leaving Salt Lake City with bronze.

     “Life goes on. Here I am again, keeping it simple. It was a wonderful experience at the Olympics. I've gotten a good reception in every city that I've performed at on [the Champions on Ice] tour. The tour helped me because it gave me a sense that it's fine. One performance isn't going to make me a bad person or a good person. It happens. It was devastating because I wanted to win, but in another way [it's] OK.”

     She also acknowledged that she now occuppied a different place in the competitive skating scene.

     “You can call me the underdog or the veteran or the old woman. I feel ancient compared to the younger skaters. It's a whole new group of skaters out on the ice. It's very refreshing yet challenging for me. I remember looking at Nancy (Kerrigan), and she was probably looking at me how I look at the other skaters -- ‘Wow these are new faces, what are they doing?’”

     At that time Kwan declined to commit herself to competing at the 2003 U.S. or World Championships. But there could have been no doubt in her own mind. With Williams's help, she had begun adding difficulty to her routine. She debuted a long program featuring six triples, including a triple Lutz-double and a triple flip-double toe. The first reward was another U.S. Championship in Dallas where she had been considered the underdog. That gave her seven U.S. championships, more than everyone but Maribel Vinson Owen, a skater who had won nine nationals during the less competitive 1920s. Dallas also added another 6.0 to Kwan's 28 perfects at nationals. Two months later Michelle Kwan had fully restored her standing as the world's top skater by winning her fifth World Championship, pulling ahead of everyone but Carol Heiss who won five gold and a silver between 1955-1960.

     But the top is a very slippery place for a skater who has spent the past seven years holding off an entire generation of talented young rivals.

     In the October season opener at Madison Square Garden Kwan came in second behind Sasha Cohen, the rival whose breath is most often on the back of her neck. That defeat signaled the needed to raise her game another notch, especially in the increasingly pivotal triple-jump routines. It was time for another change.

     On December 3 just before the International Figure Skating challenge in Auburn Hills, Kwan announced that two weeks earlier she had been working with Rafael Arutunian, a member of the coaching staff at the Ice Castle training facility at Lake Arrowhead. Kwan had briefly worked with Arutunian just before the 2002 Olympics. Arutunian is a renown jump technician who worked for many years with Russian Alexander Sasha Abt.

     Williams had worked well during a year in which she had followed a light competitive schedule, Kwan explained, but she was now embarking on a more rigorous schedule. “I need to start training hard and skate more [now]. I have to keep on pushing myself and keep moving because the competition is becoming extreme, with triple-triples and triple axels. I have to keep up with the times.”

     The pressure to keep adding ever more difficult jump routines takes a heavy toll on the aesthetics of many competitions. At Auburn Hills all seven women and four men fell, bobbled landings or missed jumps while performing the free skate before a panel of five international judges.

     Kwan lost a landing on a triple lutz late in the program. She started shaky on her opening jump, doubling a planned triple loop. But she had enough experience and skill to take first place. Sasha Cohen fell three times and finished third. It was Kwan's first performance under Arutunian and she sounded upbeat.

     “I am so excited, I have improved so much these last two weeks with Rafael,” she said. “There's a lot for me to work on, as you can see by the fall. There's been a lot of changes in the last two weeks -- new coach, new boots. I wanted to go out there and attack and perform well. Not hold back. I think I did that.” She seemed determind to dispel the impression that she had become too conservative and cautious in her routines.

     Michelle Kwan also dispelled doubts that had begun surfacing as to whether she would be competing in the Atlanta nationals in January (3-11). A win there would give Kwan her eighth U.S. title. A win at the 2004 World Championships in Dortmund, Germany in late March (22-28) would seal her standing as the world's winningest figure skater of all time, with six titles and a silver. But none of that would change the fact that her next shot at that elusive Olympic gold remains two grueling years away, ample time for the birth of new dreams and the passing of old ones. But if the past is any indication, Michelle Kwan's will be burning as brightly as ever.

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“I feel ancient compared to the younger skaters. It's a whole new group of skaters out on the ice. It's very refreshing yet challenging for me.”


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