PHILADELPHIA - She began with a pair of brown, rented boots, and instructions on how to fall.
The boots were uncomfortable. The ice was unyielding. But Michelle Kwan was smitten. She was 7 years old when she settled on her dream, watching spellbound as Brian Boitano glided to a gold medal in Calgary.
''I tried to imagine what he was feeling,'' she remembered. ''Right then, I decided that I wanted to know that feeling for myself. I vowed that I would go to the Olympics.''
The year was 1988. Ten years later, the dream is reality. Before Michelle Kwan won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday night, her place on the Olympic team was already assured. She was skating not so much for position, but posterity. In her mind, she always has.
''I want to be a legend,'' Kwan wrote in her memoir, Heart Of A Champion. ''Like Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming. I want to leave a little mark. 'Michelle Kwan was a great skater, artistically and technically. She had the whole package.' I want people to remember me after one thousand years, when skating is weird and people are doing quintuple jumps.''
A lasting image
A thousand years is a long time for any memory to linger, but this millennium will know no finer skating performance than the one Michelle Kwan staged Saturday night.
Eight of the nine judges gave her perfect 6.0s for artistic presentation. Eight out of nine graded her at 5.9 for technical merit. She landed her jumps so softly, the ice might have passed for snow.
''It felt so good,'' she said. ''I'm speechless, I guess. It was the performance of my life so far,'' she said. ''Perfect 6.0s, how can I improve on this?''
Maybe she can't, but four weeks before the Winter Games of Nagano, the world is forewarned.
Kwan was the alternate on the U.S. Olympic team four years ago in Norway. Two years later, she was a World Champion. Now, at 17, she has become the international standard for skating elegance. She will be challenged next month in Nagano by her precocious teammate, Tara Lipinski. Yet Kwan's chief competition will be internal, the drive not simply to win, but to leave an indelible impression on her audience. When she had finished Saturday, Kwan said she dreams not of medals, but of flight. The skater who would leave a mark that would last a thousand years is striving for something more than mere success.
One of a kind
Beyond the gold, Kwan's goal is originality. The music behind her free skating program - ''Lyra Angelica'' - was selected in part because the piece is unfamiliar. Having appeared in previous long programs as the Biblical temptress Salome, as Scheherezade from The Arabian Nights and as an Indian princess who inspired the Taj Mahal, Kwan sought a role that could only be associated with her.
''I was looking into music early last year,'' she said. ''I thought when I'm 80 years old, looking back, I don't want to see Salome. I don't want to see any character. I want to see me.''
It was clever casting. Just by being herself, Kwan conveys a joy and grace her rivals must struggle to achieve. For all her technical prowess, and leaping ability, Lipinski has yet to approach Kwan's emotional range on the ice.
Thursday, in performing her short program, Kwan became the first American woman to receive a perfect 6.0 for presentation, and she earned seven such scores. Her coach, Frank Carroll, spoke of her attaining a ''performing aura rather than just a technical aura.''
Saturday, she fairly glowed. A thousand years from now, the videotape will still be striking.
''Michelle is beautiful on the ice,'' said Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist. ''She obviously has the whole package of the technical side and artistry on the ice.''
What Michelle Kwan does not have she may soon acquire. A thousand years from now, a gold medal should still be worth something.
Northern Ky. pair places 12th
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