PHILADELPHIA - Michelle Kwan floats through the air with the greatest of ease. Her takeoffs, however, are a little tricky.
America's most graceful ice princess has had to develop more grit these last few months. A stress fracture in her left foot has been a source of persistent pain and a cause of significant change to her skating programs.
On the threshold of her Olympic dream, Kwan has had to rush through a rewrite of the script, accepting greater difficulty for fewer groans, adopting a steelier disposition because she hasn't the time to heal. She approaches her defining moments as a figure skater on a wave of newfound optimism, but certainly not on her own terms.
''At Christmastime, I was talking to myself,'' Kwan said Tuesday afternoon at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. ''I asked, 'Am I really ready for this competition?' Then I told myself, 'If you worry about it, it's still going to wind up the same way.' ''
Michelle Kwan is 17 years old, and ordinarily as bubbly as New Year's Eve. Two years ago, she was the charming winner of the World Championships in Edmonton, and finished first in seven of her eight competitions. Since then, though, she has staggered, adjusting to her maturing body, to injury and to the emerging threat of Tara Lipinski.
Trouble at the top
Kwan reached the summit of her sport to find the footing was treacherous at the top. She would lose to Lipinski three times in a row. Worse, she began to lose her confidence. Her coach, Frank Carroll, said it was the first time Kwan had considered the possibility of defeat.
''I felt like a bug captured in a spider web,'' she said last summer. ''I was confused. I was panicked. I kept saying, 'You've got to do something.' But I didn't know what.''
She refers to 1997 now as ''my coma year,'' though it is invariably in the past tense. She began to come out of the coma following a dispiriting fall at the World Championships in Switzerland.
Fourth after the short program, Kwan sat crying in the dressing room. Tugging on a shoelace, she lost her grip momentarily and a hand flew up and struck her in the face. In an instant, the tears stopped and the laughter started. Michelle Kwan's coma was over.
She was crying again a day later, but this time it was from joy and relief. After inadvertently slapping herself silly, Kwan regained her composure to win the long program. She finished second overall and had gained the priceless insight that, ''a combination jump wasn't life or death.''
''My perspective has changed from last year to this year,'' she said Tuesday. ''Now, my attitude is to enjoy skating. Every time I go to the rink, it's something that picks me up. It's not like someone is pushing me to be on the ice.''
Dream draws near
Last year, Michelle Kwan dreaded the demands of Olympic training. But as her goal has grown closer, the sacrifices have diminished in her mind.
''In my mind,'' she said, ''the Olympics is like a wonderland. Like Disneyland. It's something I've always dreamed of.''
Kwan went to the Lillehammer Games of 1994 as an alternate, an insurance policy against the possibility of Tonya Harding's indictment. She would go to Nagano as the favorite if she can conquer Lipinski this week.
To improve her chances, Kwan has substituted a triple flip for the triple toe loop in her short program - heightening her difficulty, lowering her pain. She has shifted the one triple toe loop in her long program to a spot near the end, where she would have the option to eliminate it altogether if she were skating well enough.
''Thinking about the gold is crazy,'' Frank Carroll said Tuesday. ''We talk about skating our best and letting the chips fall. I think that's a destructive environment to be in, to be talking about the gold. We don't talk about gold.''
Some things are simply understood.
''We dream ,'' Michelle Kwan said, ''about gold.''
Eldredge 1st after short program
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