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Michelle Kwan

Cool on the ice

Skating star sets sights on Goodwill Games, 2002 Olympics

Skating sensation Michelle Kwan won her fourth world title in Vancouver, Canada, in March 2001.  

(CNN) -- Michelle Kwan has elegance, showmanship, style and precision -- the almost perfect formula for becoming a figure skating legend. The only key element she lacks is a gold medal victory at the Olympics.

Sophisticated, mature and phenomenal on the ice, Kwan lost the 1998 Nagano Games by a 10th of a point to figure skater Tara Lipinski. But at 21, Kwan hasn't given up hope of winning her dream as she chases gold medals at the upcoming 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

No stranger to the No. 1 spot, Kwan has won five U.S. crowns -- as many as ice skating legends Peggy Fleming and Tenley Albright -- and is a four-time world champion.

Her dream of skating at the Olympics has been a lifelong quest.

"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 up my skates and a big smile on my face, excited to go on the ice," she said.

Olympic gold medalist Fleming, herself a purveyor of grace and style on ice, attributes Kwan's learning skills to intuition.

"She was like a sponge when she came to the sport of figure skating," Fleming said. "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."

A lifetime in skates

Kwan was born July 7, 1980, in Torrance, California, 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles.

Her parents, Danny and Estella Kwan, had moved to California from their native city of Hong Kong. Danny Kwan took a job with the local phone company, and his wife ran a family-owned Chinese restaurant called the Golden Pheasant. Michelle has two older siblings, Ron and Karen.

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"The Kwans are very much a middle American family who have one incredibly talented athlete in their midst," said Christine Brennan, author of "Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating."

Kwan's parents recognized their daughter's enthusiasm early on and did everything they could to nurture her talent.

By age 7, Michelle had won her first figure skating competition. She was so eager to practice that she would sometimes sleep in her skating costume so she would be ready for morning practice.

The costs of training posed a difficult financial challenge for the family. The Kwans spent more than $120,000 a year to fund skating expenses for all three children.

The two girls studied figure skating, while Ron became a hockey player. To save money, the family eventually moved in with Danny Kwan's parents.

By 1991, the two girls were ready to take their skating education to another level and moved to Lake Arrowhead, California, home of the prestigious Ice Castle International Training Center.

There, Kwan met famed skating coach Frank Carroll.

"Michelle, when she first came up here to Ice Castle, had a lot of energy, a lot of spin in her legs but had totally no sophistication whatsoever," Carroll said. "She also had no training habits. So what's she learned up here is the beauty of skating, plus the discipline of skating."

After winning several junior competitions, Kwan, then 12, felt she was ready to compete on a senior level. Her new coach disagreed, suggesting she wait before moving to the higher level.

At 12, Kwan competed in her first U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1993.  

But Kwan proceeded with the move, and her relationship with her coach remained intact. She hired a tutor and dedicated more time to the ice.

In January 1993, Kwan traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, and skated in her first U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Friend and 1988 Olympic gold medal winner Brian Boitano recalls Kwan's naivete. "I remember she had a little ponytail and a pink dress on, and she had no makeup at all ... and I just thought she was so cute," Boitano said. "She reminded me of a little chick because she was so green."

Kwan earned sixth place, and for the first time, the skating world took notice.

"She had a really great performance and really got our attention at that point," Brennan said. "The New York Times did a piece on her. I was at The Washington Post, and I wrote about her. 'There is this new, young girl coming up. Let's keep an eye on her.' "

Later that year, she proved herself a winner when she took home the gold at the Olympic Festival in San Antonio, Texas.

"She was way ahead of her time at 13," Boitano said. "She was doing stuff that no other girls were doing."

Drama at the '94 Winter Olympics

Despite her growing talent, Kwan was up against fierce competition for a spot on the U.S. team at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Days before the Olympic trials and the U.S. championships in the winter of 1994, skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee by associates of another skater, Tonya Harding. Despite the attack, Kerrigan and Harding went on to the Olympics, and Kwan was chosen as an alternate.

Maturing as a skater, Kwan placed second in the 1994 U.S. championships in Detroit, Michigan.  

Kwan, then 13, received more than the usual press coverage because of the possibility that Kerrigan would be unable to perform due to her injury or that Harding would be pulled from the Games in the face of allegations against her.

Although Kwan never made it onto the ice in the 1994 Olympics, she had been initiated into the international skating world.

She won the national competitions in 1996, and that same year took her first victory in the world championships in Canada.

"There's a lot of emotions that always come out after a skate of a lifetime. I always start crying because there is so much buildup to that competition," she said.

While 1996 was a stellar year for Kwan, 1997 proved to be a slump. Competition, life changes and distraction affected the grace and stability that Kwan had become known for displaying on the ice.

She lost the 1997 national championships to Lipinski, who was two years her junior. The 1997 world championships didn't prove to be much better as Kwan ranked fourth after some faulty jumps.

"I didn't know what was going on. I was thinking about too many things instead of just love of skating," she said.

Kwan also was coping with the separation from her older sister, who left Lake Arrowhead to attend Boston University.

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

Disappointment at Nagano

But then in 1998, she recaptured her passion for the ice and made a comeback, receiving perfect scores in the national championships.

But one dream remained -- earning an Olympic gold medal.

"I had dreamed of being at the Olympics since I was 7 years old," she said.

Finishing second to fellow U.S. skater Tara Lipinski, center, Kwan, left, won a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Lu Chen of China received the bronze.  

In the 1998 Nagano Olympics, that dream came true. Kwan, then 17, entered the Games as the favorite over teammate Lipinski.

"I remember when I was in Japan and the first time I set foot in the Olympic arena," Kwan said. "I skated over the sign that said Nagano '98 Olympics. I had tears in my eyes just being at the Olympic building, being an Olympian."

Although 30 women from 22 countries came to Japan to compete for the figure skating title, two skaters from the United States commanded all the attention.

During the competition, Kwan received news that her friend Peggy Fleming had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Fleming remembers Kwan calling from Nagano. "She said, 'I was worried about you and I just wanted to hear your voice and see if you were OK,' and I said, 'Yes, I am. Don't worry about me, you have the Olympics to think about.'"

Like Fleming, Kwan was known for her gracefulness, something she desperately needed to show to win the gold medal. In Nagano, she finished her program with great success, but still Lipinski had to skate.

"You could tell from the marks that the judges had left that there was some room, a 10th of a point," said Jere Longman of The New York Times, recalling Kwan's score before Lipinski began her program. "So Tara knew that if she skated her best, that she could win."

Lipinski skated a near flawless routine, winning the Olympic gold. Kwan received the silver medal.

"If you would have had that competition 10 times, Michelle Kwan would have won nine out of 10. If you would have had it 100 times, I think Michelle Kwan would have won 95 out of 100 times," Brennan said. "But that moment, which is what sports is all about, Tara Lipinski did it."

Kwan's decision to stay in competitive figure skating after her upset in Nagano was not an easy one.

An inspirational speech from Carroll, her longtime coach, refueled Kwan's commitment to the sport.

Not only was she willing to continue, but her popularity soared.

In 2000, Kwan was voted one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful. Advertisers sought her, and she also had a video game modeled after her.

Today, Kwan is a sophomore at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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

She remains focused on skating and is close to her family. At the 2002 Games, she will be one of the oldest women competing.

"If she wins that Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City, it will be the equivalent of (John) Elway winning that Super Bowl or Ernie Banks had he ever made it to the World Series and won it," Brennan said.

"I think she will be seen as the greatest figure skater in history. Without the Olympic gold medal, I think she will be seen as the second, third or fourth best in history. So, that's not a bad choice. Either way, she wins."

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