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Monday, February 18, 2002
Updated: February 19, 3:43 AM ET
Kwan takes different approach to Olympics

By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine

SALT LAKE CITY -- Six national titles. Four world championships. Over 30 perfect sixes.

Zero Olympic gold medals.

Not even Fermat could explain the way the numbers crunch for Michelle Kwan come Games-time. While Kwan's classical style may still sway traditionalist judges, her artistry can't compensate for her lack of technical difficulty.

In Nagano, she skated flawlessly but conservatively, and Tara Lipinski and her exuberant, jump-filled program skated away with the gold. Kwan is uncomfortable with triple-triple combos, while Irina Slutskaya was the first woman to execute a triple lutz-triple loop, and Slutskaya's program that should include seven triples could boast a triple salchow-triple loop combo.

And Kwan's teammates, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen love the triple combos. Their arsenal includes the triple salchow-triple loop, triple toe-triple toe and triple loop-triple loop combos. Cohen has even landed quad salchows in practice, though she has no plans to unveil them here. Maria Butyrskaya, the 1999 world champion, is also a better jumper and a faster skater, and boasts the same intricate spins and lyrical choreography Kwan is known for.

"My goal has always been to make skating more artistic," Kwan said.

Over the past year, however, she seemed to be only making it more confusing.

In June, she fired choreographer Lori Nichols -- no reason given.

In October, she axed coach Frank Carroll -- no reason given.

Now, Kwan has been coaching herself. Sarah Kawahara, who has developed Kwan's programs for TV specials, is helping tweak her free skate. And everyone else has been questioning her sanity.

"Of course, the external distractions and criticisms influence the internal," Kwan said. "But mentally, you have to be ready. You've got to know your focus is going to be there."

Even if her focus wavers, she'll be the sentimental favorite, especially on home ice.

"When Michelle's at her best, she reaches every person in the audience," U.S. judge Jessica Bussgang said. "Even in the last row of bleachers. She skates from her soul."

Winning nationals in January seemed to erase Kwan's losses to Slutskaya and Hughes this season and vindicate her decision to rid herself of her longtime mentors. Now, Kwan is more animated and laid back. And in Salt Lake City, she's been doing things differently, staying in the Athletes Village, marching in the Opening Ceremonies.

"What I learned from '98 was that the Olympics isn't everything," Kwan said. "It's over in six minutes, and then you're like, 'That was it?' You have to enjoy the process and not focus so much on the competition."

That's not Slutskaya's philosophy. The Russian birthday girl turned 23 on Feb. 9, but there was no party.

"That will wait until after Olympics are over," said Slutskaya, runner-up to Kwan at the past two world championships.

Kwan's good friend, Alexei Yagudin, who won the men's competition Thursday, gives her a gold-medal thumbs-up.

"Michelle is one of the prettiest female skaters in the world," he said. "When she skates, she is so soft. Irina jumps really good, but it's not like a female skater. But Michelle, I really adore her skating."

The old saw is that Kwan without Olympic gold is a woman unfulfilled. Kwan, at least publicly, disagrees.

"I'm very fortunate, because I'm very satisfied with what I have now," she said. "A gold medal would be icing on top of an already perfect cake."

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.