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Michelle Kwan: One of History's Best Figure Skaters

Aired August 4, 2001 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: She's an ice skating princess who rules the rink.

MICHELLE KWAN: All I can remember is every day tying my skates and a big smile on my face, and excited to go on the ice.

ANNOUNCER: Taking to the ice as a gangly little girl.

FRANK CARROLL, COACH: When she first came up here to Ice Castle was -- had a lot of energy, a lot of spring in her legs, but had totally no sophistication whatsoever.

ANNOUNCER (voice-over): Soaring to athletic excellence.

BRIAN BOITANO, OLYMPIC CHAMPION: She was way ahead of her, way ahead of her time at 13. I mean, she was really doing stuff that no other girls were doing.

ANNOUNCER: Only to see a lifelong dream slip away.

KWAN: I wish I came home with the gold, but I came home with the silver. And I was happy with that. Not completely satisfied.

ANNOUNCER: Competing in this month's Goodwill Games, looking ahead to the upcoming Winter Olympics.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, AUTHOR, "INSIDE EDGE": If she wins that Olympic gold medal, I think she will be seen as the greatest figure skater in history.

ANNOUNCER: Michelle Kwan, her story now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DARYN KAGAN, HOST: Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Daryn Kagan.

From as early as she can remember, Michelle Kwan wanted to skate, not just for fun, for an Olympic gold medal. That Olympic title is about the only accolade missing from Kwan's resume. She's in training for the 2002 Games in February, when she hopes to bring back the gold medal that's eluded her so far.

With her story, here is David Mattingly.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gorgeous, it is absolutely gorgeous. Beautiful, beautiful day around the Bay Area, already 90 degree and--

(END AUDIO CLIP)

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On your perfect day in San Francisco, but as the sun shines brightly in the Bay Area, a select few have chosen a much cooler location to spend their time.

The dream for a skating medal begins at ice rinks like this one. Little skaters as young as 6 are taught to focus and learn their routines, emulating their hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who do you want to be when you grow up?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Michelle Kwan.

KWAN: I don't really remember a time younger than 5 years old that I didn't have skates on, because all I can remember is, every day tying my skates and a big smile on my face, excited to go on the ice.

MATTINGLY: She is a five-time U.S. champion, four-time world champion, and an Olympic silver medalist.

PEGGY FLEMING, OLYMPIC CHAMPION: I think she was like a sponge when it came to the sport of figure skating. I mean, she could watch people and just gather information. And I think she's gathered information all these years and is now putting it all to use.

SKATING ANNOUNCER: There's her triple up Selchow, very solid.

BOITANO: She is probably groomed into one of the best competitors that I've ever known. She takes the moment and she seizes it. She will do-- she will do everything that she can to stay focused and to prepare so that that moment is all hers.

MATTINGLY: And Kwan's parents did everything they could to nurture their daughter's talent.

BRENNAN: Well, she grew up in a relatively middle-class background where there wasn't a lot of extra money. They weren't poor, but they weren't rich.

MATTINGLY: Danny and Estella Kwan first met in a fifth grade Hong Kong classroom. They've been together ever since. They married and moved to Torrance, California, where Danny worked for the local phone company while Estella ran a family-owned Chinese restaurant, the Golden Pheasant.

The Kwans had three children, Ron, Karen, and the youngest, Michelle, born in 1980. The family's entree into skating centered around their oldest son, who played hockey at a nearby ice rink. This early exposure to skating caught Michelle's fascination.

By age 7, Michelle had won her first figure skating competition. Eager to practice, she would sleep many nights in her skating costume. Her morning workouts couldn't come fast enough.

KWAN: I was the one running to the ice surface, and I would say, Can't wait to get on to practice my new jumps, my new spin, my new everything.

MATTINGLY: But her desire to train posed a difficult financial challenge for her family. The Kwans spent more than $120,000 a year on their three children's skating expenses.

BRENNAN: So Michelle's the little one coming up, and is the best skater by far of the three. And the Kwans did what they could to make sure she could skate. But skating is a-- can be a tremendous drain on the family budget.

MATTINGLY: The Kwans sold the family home and moved in with Danny's parents nearby so their daughter's training could continue. By 1991, Karen and Michelle were ready to take their skating to another level, so they moved 200 miles north and shared a one-bedroom cabin at remote Lake Arrowhead, a prestigious training ground for budding figure skaters.

JERE LONGMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, that's what you have to do, I mean, in figure skating if you're going to make it, and if you're-- if you don't live next door to the rink, you often have to make a lot of, you know, sacrifices.

MATTINGLY: At Lake Arrowhead, Michelle met the man who would help her chase her dreams, famed skating coach Frank Carroll.

CARROLL: Michelle, when she first came up here to Ice Castle, was-- had a lot of energy, a lot of spring in her legs, but had totally no sophistication whatsoever. She also had no training habits whatsoever, so what she's learned up here is the beauty of skating plus the discipline of skating.

FLEMING: It's a tough life being a figure skater, because you put in so many hours at the skating rink, and the times that are available for you to skate are usually early in the morning, and you've got to also work in doing your schoolwork and all of that, and getting prepared for the competitions. It's a real tough, tough life.

MATTINGLY: By her 12th birthday, having won several junior competitions, Michelle felt she was ready to compete on a senior level and leave the junior field behind. Her coach, Frank Carroll, thought otherwise.

LONGMAN: The story as it's told is that Frank was out of-- Frank Carroll, her coach, was out of town one weekend, and so unbeknownst to him, Michelle took the test to become a senior skater, and qualified, passed the test, and Frank was not too pleased with it, because he thought it would-- might be too soon of a jump for her to jump from junior to senior level. MATTINGLY: Michelle's stunt infuriated her coach, but the relationship remained intact.

In January 1993, at age 12, Michelle traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, and skated in her first U.S. championships, her first true test against top-ranked skaters, names like Kerrigan and Harding.

BOITANO: What I remember is, she had a little pony tail and a pink dress on, and she had no makeup at all, and she had these little hairs that were-- you know, right at your hairline when new hairs come out. And I just thought she was so cute, she reminded me of, like, a little chick.

MATTINGLY: Michelle took sixth place.

BRENNAN: She had a great performance and really got our attention at that point. And it was-- you know, who is this? Let's keep an eye on her.

MATTINGLY: Later that year at the Olympic Festival in San Antonio, Texas, Michelle proved her success at nationals was no fluke.

KWAN: That was, like, for so many people watching me skate, there was over 25,000 people watching. And it was the first time that I was, like, competing against good people. And I was, like, wow, you know, maybe I could be better, maybe I can place one of these years.

MATTINGLY: And she did, winning the gold, making a unique connection with the audience.

FLEMING: This is something you really can't teach a skater. You can't teach them how to really, you know, open your soul up to an audience. You just can't. And Michelle just has that naturally.

MATTINGLY: When the story of Michelle Kwan continues, her crack at the Olympics, and the "Why?" heard around the world.

LONGMAN: Within about three minutes, the people who cover figure skating said, Oh, I wonder if Tonya Harding had anything to do with this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KAGAN: Michelle Kwan battles burnout. That's coming up next.

But first, this week's edition of "Passages."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER (voice-over): Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died Wednesday of complications from heat stroke. The 335-pound player collapsed during practice the day before at the team's training camp on the hottest day of the year. He was rushed to an area hospital with a temperature of 108. The pro-bowl lineman was a four- year starter for the Vikings. He was 27. Limp Bizkit's latest show was billed as the Anger Management Tour. But a paramedic who filed a lawsuit against the rap-rockers would beg to differ. He claims he suffered brain damage during an October concert in Detroit after being attacked by Bizkit fans. No comment from the band on the lawsuit.

Being a diva is tough work. Mariah Carey was hospitalized after suffering what her publicist called an emotional and physical breakdown. The publicist is denying reports that the 31-year-old songstress attempted suicide. The pop diva will miss a string of upcoming events to promote her new film and sound track, "Glitter."

For more celebrity scoop, pick up a copy of "People" magazine this week.

We'll be right back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FLEMING: You really feel like she's really having fun when she's skating. You really feel like her heart is out there and that she's just enjoying every step of the way.

BOITANO: I mean, she was way ahead of her, way ahead of her time at 13. I mean, she was really doing stuff that no other girls were doing.

SKATING ANNOUNCER: The triple flip. Perfect!

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Michelle Kwan's talent was maturing, her skills dwarfed the abilities of other skaters her own age.

Still, in the winter of 1994, there was much bigger news making headlines. On January 6, Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan was attacked at a warmup just days before the U.S. championships and Olympic trials in Detroit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NANCY KERRIGAN: Why? Why?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TARA LIPINSKY, OLYMPIC CHAMPION: I was very-- I was enjoying my first time there, and, you know, my mom was, like, Don't go anywhere, you know, someone's on the warpath. But it happened.

LONGMAN: Everyone thought these were little china dolls, and you brought in the sort of brutal aspect of one athlete attacking another athlete, or associates of one athlete attacking another athlete. And that sent it through the roof.

MATTINGLY: Associates of fellow skater Tonya Harding were responsible for the planned hit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONYA HARDING: I don't have anything to say to you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: A blow that sidelined Kerrigan from the national competition and threatened her participation at the upcoming Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, just six weeks away.

Despite the ongoing scandal, Kerrigan and Harding were permitted to compete in Lillehammer. Michelle Kwan was chosen as the team's alternate.

BOITANO: It wasn't really her Olympics to shine, but she got a lot of attention because she was the alternate for Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

BRENNAN: This little 13-year-old, Michelle Kwan, waiting in the wings in case Tonya got booted off the team, and if she had, then of course Michelle would have been there on the Olympic team.

MATTINGLY: After Lillehammer, with the retirements of Kerrigan and Harding, Kwan seemed poised to grab the top spot. But at the 1995 U.S. championships, she placed second. Two months later, at the world championships, a disappointing fourth.

Something had to change. Everybody knew it was time for Michelle Kwan to grow up.

LONGMAN: Frank was concerned that she, you know, no matter how well she skated, she was still a girl.

BRENNAN: Teaching her about her body, teaching her how to ooze on the ice like a tube of toothpaste, and those were incredible words to be telling a 13- or a 14-year-old about her body and how to move on the ice. And to lose that awkward gangliness and to become this incredible artist.

I mean, look how consistent she is at every competition. I mean, a bad day for Michelle Kwan is coming in second.

MATTINGLY: In 1996, Kwan won the nationals, but the 15-year-old had her sights set on a bigger prize, the world championships.

KWAN: There was a moment I'll never forget. I was in Canada, and I skated the best short program, the best long program of my life.

MATTINGLY: The judges agreed, awarding Kwan her first world championship victory.

KWAN: And there's a lot of emotions that always comes out, like after the skate of a lifetime, I always start crying, because there's so much buildup to that competition. MATTINGLY: Michelle Kwan was making a name for herself, enjoying early celebrity. She attended the premiere of "Titanic," hoping to get a glimpse of heartthrob Leonardi DiCaprio.

BOITANO: She's, like, We got to go get a picture, we got to go. I was, like, making a beeline as she did this whole thing, and she-- she-- she-- you know, she took her picture with Leo, and I said, "Well, did he know who you were?" And this was before the Olympics. And she said, "No, he didn't know who I was." And I said, "Don't worry, hon, he'll remember who you are later."

BRENNAN: So you've got Michelle Kwan on a complete roll. This woman cannot be stopped. The 1996 world's, she dominates, she beats (inaudible) incredible competition. She's on top of her game. And Danny Kwan changes the boots. And 1997 is a nightmare.

SKATING ANNOUNCER: Ooh, now, that was a problem.

MATTINGLY: According to Brennan, Danny Kwan had switched his daughter's boots for a lucrative deal with another manufacturer.

BRENNAN: And for those of us who cover skating, even though we cover it, you know, pretty (inaudible)-- pretty well, there's still all these little things we don't know. And a change of boots is a big deal.

LONGMAN: Skaters often talk about the feel for the ice. There's very little padding in the skates, so it's essentially your foot and some leather and then the blade. So if the blade is-- you know, is not sharpened correctly or it's not positioned correctly, this-- you know, it's like the Princess and the Pea. A skater can really feel that it's not quite right.

KWAN: I didn't understand what was going on. Like, I was thinking about too many things, instead of just love skating.

MATTINGLY: She also had to cope with a separation for her older sister, Karen, who left Lake Arrowhead to attend Boston University. Michelle struggled in her absence.

KWAN: I was just frustrated, and I was trying to solve a problem, like a puzzle. I was piecing them together, but none of them fit. I was very confused.

MATTINGLY: By 1998, Michelle Kwan had recaptured her passion for the ice. The old boots were back, and so were the victories. She received perfect scores at the nationals and won the world championship title yet again.

But what she wanted was an Olympic gold medal, and everything Kwan had trained for would soon be tested.

KWAN: I dreamt of being at the Olympics since I was 7 years old.

BRENNAN: I know the whole Kwan team, you know, thought that she could win the Olympic gold medal. LONGMAN: Michelle, I thought, was skating well in practice, but I think she got nervous.

MATTINGLY: When the story of Michelle Kwan continues, high drama in Nagano.

FLEMING: You are the only one out there on the ice. It's high pressure, because you get one shot at it.

LIPINSKY: It was really hard, because a lot of people didn't think I was going to win.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KAGAN: Coming up next, Michelle Kwan's chance to realize a dream.

But before we take a break, an update on a former Olympic teammates of Kwan's who's better known for something that happened off the ice.

Here's "Where Are They Now?"

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER (voice-over): In 1994, Tonya Harding skidded across the headlines after the clubbing of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. So where is Tonya Harding today?

After getting in trouble with the law again last year for assaulting her boyfriend, Harding ventured into acting and singing. The 30-year-old skater continues to hone her skills on the ice. Though she recently turned down an offer to skate topless in a Las Vegas ice show, Harding hopes to skate for her fans again on the professional circuit.

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS will be right back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KWAN: I remember when I was in Japan, and the first time I stepped foot into the Olympic arena, I skated over the sign that said "Nagano, 1998 Olympics," and I had tears in my eyes just being at the Olympic building, being an Olympian.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): But Kwan wanted more than just to compete. She came to win. The 17-year-old entered as the favorite over teammate Tara Lipinsky after Kwan's near-perfect score at the U.S. championships a month earlier.

BRENNAN: And she goes to Nagano, and I wrote it, I said it, if she doesn't fall, she's going to win. LONGMAN: But she also had a stress fracture in her foot, so it required her to, you know, change the way she jumped a little bit.

MATTINGLY: Although 30 women from 22 countries came to Nagano to compete for the figure skating title, the two American teenagers commanded all the attention.

LIPINSKY: Oh, definitely Michelle was my main competition at obviously the '98 Olympics.

KWAN: It's fair to have two rivalries competing together and to build interest, because that's how competition should be. There may be 100 people trying to get the gold medal, but a lot of people are looking at just two.

MATTINGLY: Kwan skated a dazzling two-minute-and-40-second short program, leading the field at the end of the first half of the competition. Lipinsky placed second.

Kwan's mind was not focused entirely on the competition. She received bad news about a skating legend who was also a friend.

FLEMING: When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in Nagano, she called me on the phone and, you know, I'm at home, and she said, "I was worried about you, I just wanted to hear your voice and, you know, see if you were OK." And I said, "Yes, I am, don't worry about me. You have the Olympics to think about."

MATTINGLY: Like Fleming, Kwan was known for her grace on the ice. Kwan knew that she would need all that poise when she skated the long program. Win that, and she would win the gold medal.

KWAN: When you're done with your program, when you're at the final pose and you know that you did it, it's, like, a moment that you just want to keep forever.

MATTINGLY: But Kwan could not celebrate just yet. Tara Lipinsky still had to skate.

LONGMAN: Well, she saw Michelle, and, well, you could tell from the marks the judges had left that there was some room, you know, a tenth of a point here, a tenth of a point there. So Tara knew that if she skated her best, she could win.

BRENNAN: I think if you had that competition 10 times, Michelle Kwan wins nine out of 10. But that moment, which is what sports is all about, Tara Lipinsky did it.

MATTINGLY: Tara Lipinsky skated a near-flawless routine, winning the long form and winning Olympic gold. On the medal platform, a defeated Michelle Kwan graciously accepted second place.

KWAN: Not the skate of my lifetime, but just knowing that I have no regrets. I wish I came home with the gold, but I came home with the silver. And I'm happy with that. Not completely satisfied, but I know that there's many more years of skating to come. MATTINGLY: Kwan's decision to stay in competitive figure skating was not an easy one. To look ahead to Salt Lake City four years later, author Christine Brennan says, a pivotal moment between Kwan and her coach refueled her commitment to the sport.

BRENNAN: Frank Carroll came up to her back at the arena, just the two of them, and said, "Listen, people are going to come up to you and say you were robbed, that you should have won that gold, and that this was unfair, a bad decision."

She said-- and he said to her, "That's not right. I don't want you to go through life thinking that this was unfair, because right now, at this moment, this was the right decision. It's tough to hear, but it's the fair decision, that you didn't quite skate the way you could have, and Tara Lipinsky obviously did."

But those words were absolutely instrumental in paving the next three and a half, four years of Michelle Kwan's career.

MATTINGLY: Coming in second in the 1998 Olympics didn't seem to hurt Kwan's popularity.

SKATING ANNOUNCER: Beautiful.

MATTINGLY: Voted one of "People" magazine's 50 most beautiful people, she's sought out by advertisers and associated with other celebrities.

BRENNAN: In hindsight, Michelle Kwan's making much more money, is much more famous, much better known, and much more (inaudible). And yet she came in second.

MATTINGLY: Today at 21, Kwan is a sophomore at UCLA and she has herself a boyfriend. We're told it's long distance.

KWAN: It seems like in the last few years, I've experienced a lot and have grown up.

MATTINGLY: Grown up, but still close to her family and still focused on the one piece of hardware that's eluded her, an Olympic gold medal. And as one of the oldest women still competing for the top prize, the Salt Lake City Olympics next February most likely will be her last shot.

FLEMING: She's always challenged herself and pushed herself, and, you know, I think it-- she would love the gold medal. That would be a finishing touch.

BRENNAN: If she wins an Olympic gold medal at Salt Lake City, well, it'd be the equivalent of Elway winning that Super Bowl. I mean, Michelle Kwan, if she wins that Olympic gold medal, I think she will be seen as the greatest figure skater in history. Without the Olympic gold medal, I think she'll be seen as one of the two, three, four best in history. So that's not a bad choice.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KAGAN: Although Michelle Kwan is the reigning world champ, her entry into the Olympics in February is not guaranteed. She must compete and do well in the U.S. nationals in January.

For more on Michelle Kwan, log onto our Web site at CNN.com/people.

And please join us next week when we catch up with golfing sensation Tiger Woods as he attempts to win another major.

I'm Daryn Kagan. For all of us here at PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, thanks for watching.

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