Graceful Kwan still seeking gold

Updated: July 5, 2005, 4:14 PM ET
By Bob Phillips | Special to ESPN.com

"Michelle's a tiger underneath. She's a great fighter, a great competitor. She has a really passive outside and she's really easy going. Everybody loves her and she's a great girl. But at the same there's this real warrior inside that wants to accomplish these things," says two-time world figure-skating champion Brian Boitano on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Style has always been her calling card. At 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, Michelle Kwan is one of the most graceful athletes ever to compete in figure skating. She's won five world championships and nine national titles, tying for the most in history.

"Michelle puts her heart and soul out there with incredibly beautiful movements," said two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt.

But Kwan's legacy will not be golden. Instead, she will be remembered most for the two gold medals she failed to win.

Twice, she led going into the free-skating program at the Olympics. Twice, she faded, looking too slow and too conservative. Twice, it was younger and more enthusiastic teenagers who ripped Olympic gold from Kwan's grasp with breath-taking performances, the kind that Kwan had given so often. At the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, it was 15-year-old Tara Lipinski. Four years later in Salt Lake City, it was 16-year-old Sarah Hughes.

"At 13, I was fearless," Kwan said after settling for silver in 1998. "I looked at everything so positive. When you're older and been through it all, you know how bad it can get. There is a fear of failing.

"As a child, I'd wonder, 'When I die, will people still remember me 1,000 years later?' And without the gold medal ... Well, the Olympics are the ultimate achievement in my sport. At times I think, 'Why should I push myself all those long hours in the rink?' But then I think, 'How will I ever know how good I could have been?' I want to be the Michael Jordan of my sport."

Born July 7, 1980 in Torrance, Calif., Kwan Wing Shan (her Chinese name) was the third child of Chinese immigrants Danny and Estella Kwan. Michelle's love for skating began at five after watching her older brother, Ron, play ice hockey. Her other sibling, Karen, also took up figure skating.

Michelle Kwan won the silver medal in figure skating at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Danny moved the family to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., in 1991 so that Michelle could be taught by Frank Carroll, one of figure skating's top coaches, at the Ice Castle, which remains Michelle's home base. In her first national junior competition, Kwan finished ninth in 1992.

Later that year, despite that performance and her age (12), Kwan thought she was ready to skate with the seniors. So while Carroll was out of town, she told her father that her coach said it was okay for her to take the senior tests. She passed.

Despite Carroll's misgivings, he continued to coach her. In 1993, choreographer Lori Nichols was added to Team Kwan. At 13, Kwan finished second to Tonya Harding at the 1994 Nationals. But U.S. officials, in deference to Nancy Kerrigan's being knocked out of the competition because of the bang to the knee she received from a thug hired by Harding's former husband, awarded her the second spot on the American Olympic team. Kwan went to Lillehammer, Norway, as first alternate. Though she didn't skate, she soaked in the atmosphere.

Later that year, Kwan replaced Harding at the world championships and finished eighth. She also won a silver medal at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.

By 1995, Kerrigan and Harding were gone from the amateur ranks -- and Kwan went to the world championships filled with hope. Skating with flair, she finished fourth.

In 1996, Kwan reached elite status, winning the U.S. championship and then capturing the world title. The next year, she was upstaged by Lipinski, who took both crowns away from her. It didn't help that Kwan had switched skating boots in the fall of 1996 and she never felt comfortable with the new skates. In August 1997, an MRI revealed that Kwan had sustained a stress fracture in the second toe of her left foot.

In November, she had the cast taken off. Though the stress fracture in her toe was still not fully mended, she gave a tremendous performance in the long program at the 1998 Nationals and beat Lipinski to regain her title.

The pressure of being the favorite at the Olympics in Nagano seemed to weigh heavily on Kwan. While Lipinski was carefree throughout her stay, mingling with her fellow athletes at the Olympic Village and taking in the sites, Kwan stayed sequestered in her hotel room -- away from the Olympic Village -- when not practicing at the rink. She also didn't attend the opening ceremony.

Kwan led after the short program. In the long program, skating to Lyra Angelica by the British composer William Awyn, the 17-year-old turned in a clean, if cautious, effort. Kwan didn't make a major error -- with only one slight wobble on a triple jump -- earning her a solid row of 5.9s on presentation from the judges. As flowers rained upon the ice from her fans, the gold medal, it seemed, was hers. Still, her conservative routine earned five 5.7s for technical merit, and the door was opened, however slight, for Lipinski.

And her diminutive rival took advantage of that crack. The 4-foot-10, 82-pound reigning world champion hit the ice with an unbounded display of energy that will be remembered as a four-minute homage to unbridled joy. As she sprinted across the ice with her arms upraised, Lipinski's flawless routine won the first-place votes of six of the nine judges, and Kwan had to settle for the silver medal. Lipinski turned pro soon after the Olympics.

Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan was sensational during the Ladies short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship earning seven 6.0s.
According to many observers, Kwan's performance at Nagano was good enough to win at any other Olympics. Even in defeat, Kwan displayed the grace and elegance of a champion. "It seemed like I was in my own little world," she said. "I didn't open up; I didn't really let go. I knew this wasn't going to be a piece of cake, but I can walk away and be happy. It might not be the gold medal I wanted, but I'll take it."

"She was a bit conservative," said Carroll, agreeing that it was not Kwan's best program. "She was going for accuracy and consistency. Her performance was very held in. It was not the feeling of flying."

Later, Kwan admitted how difficult missing her life's dream with a near-perfect skate could be. "It was the hardest moment of my life," she said. "I was so close to what I'd always dreamed of that I could taste it. Afterwards, I just tried to hold it together."

Kwan rebounded nicely from that crushing defeat, winning three more world titles (1998, 2000 and 2001) and three more U.S. titles (1999-2001).

In June 2001, Kwan fired Nichols, her choreographer for eight years. Four months later, she further shocked the skating world by firing Carroll. She and her father Danny said she didn't need a coach.

In January 2002, Kwan won her sixth U.S. title. A month later, she again led in the Olympics after the short program in Salt Lake City. But the 21-year-old made two major mistakes in her free skate - a two-footed landing on a triple toe and a fall on her triple flip. Photographers bolted out of their seats angling for a shot of Kwan sitting on the ice.

After she struck her final pose, she also shrugged, but it was only to stave off the tears that would come later. As she made her way over to the "kiss and cry" area, Kwan covered her head to avoid getting pelted by a stuffed animal from the crowd who had cheered her on after her fatal error. Kwan punched the seat softly with her right hand, thinking she had failed in her mission.

Still, she could have won had Russia's Irina Slutskaya finished behind her in the long program. But when she didn't, Kwan had to settle for third, behind Hughes, who skated the performance of her life in moving from fourth to first, and Slutskaya. Once again, Kwan's dream of Olympic gold had eluded her.

In January 2003, Kwan bounced back and beat Hughes to win her sixth consecutive national title. Two months later, Kwan captured her fifth world championship, tying her with Carol Heiss for most world crowns by an American woman.

In 2004, Kwan - with a pile of perfect 6.0s - skated to her eighth national title and the following year she tied Maribel Vinson's record of nine U.S. championships by winning her eighth straight.

"It's incredible," Kwan said. "Nine? Wow. I just remember winning my first one, getting the medal and the plate, the pin with the diamond for first place. My ninth title, I have no answer for that because I never thought it would be possible."

ALSO SEE