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Figure skating: Kwan willing to pay for last shot at gold

Friday, February 11, 2000

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

CLEVELAND -- She talks a good game, Michelle Kwan does.

About how she loves to pull on a baseball cap and sweatshirt and blend into the crowd at UCLA, where she is in the middle of her freshman year and her first taste of so-called normal life. "People have been very friendly," she said. "Nobody's been like, 'Oh my God, that's Michelle Kwan.'"

About why, after winning the 1998 Olympic silver medal, she never considered leaving the Olympic-eligible ranks for the ice-show lifestyle. "I'm happy where I am. I love what I'm doing. I love putting myself through the competition and the pressure and the stress. 'Can she do that? Can she land that jump at that time?' "

About why she needs to add some more difficult jumps to her repertoire, specifically triple-triple combinations, especially after she lost in last month's Grand Prix finals to Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who landed a triple-salchow, triple loop and the more difficult triple-lutz, triple loop.

"It's like if you want to buy something at an auction, a piece of artwork," Kwan said. "If someone bids higher than you, you don't care. You have to pay more than them to get the painting. That's how I feel now. I'm ready to pay."

But on one question, she is curiously unrevealing.

Why on earth does Kwan, a millionaire who has craved a times a normal, teen-age existence, still train full time? Particularly considering the young talent looking to dethrone her? And the need for even more technical difficulty, which becomes harder to add with age?

She dances around such questions as gracefully as she glides across the ice.

She never brings up the fact that she lost the 1998 Olympic gold medal, the one everyone figured had her name on it, to Tara Lipinski, who skated the program of her life. But you can bet she's thinking about it.

The 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City will be her last chance to win the gold.

"I don't think she talks about that," said Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll. "I feel that."

What Kwan will talk about is how hard it has become to stay focused.

"When I was younger I would go the rink and say, 'This is fun,' " said Kwan, who turns 20 in July. "Now ... it's difficult when it's cold at the rink and your body doesn't want to do it. There has to be a reason. You have to find motivation. It doesn't come floating down from the ceiling into your hands."

There are four years between Olympic Games, a long time to wait for someone who badly wants a second chance. The last woman to win a silver Olympic medal and come back four years later to win the gold was Carol Heiss in 1956 and 1960.

Now Carol Heiss Jenkins and coaching skating in Cleveland, Heiss Jenkins knows what Kwan is going through. She knows what the pressure is like -- and how it can enhance a performance.

"People keep expecting champions to be perfect," Heiss Jenkins said. "If she were a machine, we wouldn't be saying how gorgeous she is, how beautiful she is, the feeling she has in her skating. She'd be a Xerox machine. And she's not. She's a human being."

To make the wait less interminable, Kwan finds ways to keep herself interested. That's why, Carroll said, she skates to different music every season, for her short and long programs. And why she wants so badly to be a college student as well as the world's best figure skater.

Why else would Kwan look so happy as she recounted the difficulties she has faced, including being intimidated by the huge freshman lecture classes at UCLA, figuring out how to sleep with music blaring in the dorms at 2 a.m. and, yes, even pulling all-nighters.

"I always go to sleep at a certain time, so that hurts," Kwan said. "I'm sitting in front of a computer going, 'Some caffeine, please.' " She made a wide-eyed face. "And get some toothpicks, too."

At the same time, time on the ice has become so important. It has become obvious that to be competitive in Salt Lake City, Kwan will need two triple-triple combinations. Even here in her own country, 15-year-old Sarah Hughes, who finished fourth last year in her first senior nationals competition, is planning in Saturday night's long program to do a triple-salchow, triple-loop and a triple-toe-loop, triple loop.

To perfect such difficult elements takes time. And whether Kwan can increase her difficulty while living the collegiate life ... well, that remains to be seen.

"I don't believe either one can wait," she said.

"I'll probably combine school and skating until 2002. It's hard just to think about skating 100 percent. It takes a toll on me. For me, it's nice to know that I have some other distraction."

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