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Happiness not gold-tinted

Michelle Kwan says she is content with or without Olympic gold.

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- It is not much we ask of Michelle Kwan.

Just a little desperation with her elegance. Maybe an unhealthy obsession to go along with her dignity. Is that really so difficult?

We want beauty tinged with grit. And grace mingled with heart. We want Kwan to want Olympic gold as badly as we think she should.

So we watched her at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with the hope we would see a passion that has been sadly absent from her routine.

The reward arrived Saturday night. Kwan skated not as if her life depended on it, but merely her legacy. She brought fire to ice. Strength to formality. Time, it does fly when you go four years without a day off.

And so it has been for Kwan. She has taken her breaks from skating. She has started college and she has fallen in love. But she's never completely escaped the perception that her career does not fit on the scale we have provided.

We met her as a 13-year-old sensation, an innocent alternative to the Tonya Harding sideshow in 1994. She returned in 1998 looking to all the world like a gold medal was her future. Instead, Tara Lipinski won and retired to the ice show circuit at 15. Kwan won silver and feared, at 17, her best days might already be behind her and another four years of longing were ahead.

"In 1998, I was only 17 and I thought, "Geez, if I don't win, then the rest of my life I'll be unhappy,' " Kwan said. "But I don't wake up every morning now thinking, "Geez, I didn't win the Olympic gold.'

"It's already apparent that if I don't win the Olympic gold, I'll be fine. Things move on."

But sometimes life does not move on in the direction we have plotted. Kwan, 21, would not be competing today had she won in Nagano. In that sense, the difference in cost between silver and gold was four more years of training.

Those years have brought Kwan three world championships -- a total of four -- and a reported $5-million annually in endorsements. She is young, admired across the globe and dubbed by People as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.

And we want her to admit her life is not complete.

"People think I've been waiting around for the last four years," Kwan said. "Time really flies and I've been able to really appreciate all of the competitions -- the nationals, the worlds, even the internationals and pro-ams. If I had turned professional, I would not have gained those experiences.

"Just listening to my titles ... the one thing I'm missing in medals is the Olympics. That is the ultimate goal. But saying whether I win it or not is not going to determine whether I'm happy for the rest of my life."

There have been times when her enthusiasm has flagged. When the pull of life has been stronger than the lure of another medal from a forgettable competition in a strange country.

She talked this week of the need to compartmentalize her life. To fight the urge that skating should always be at the front of her mind.

Kwan's explanation is her passion for skating has evolved. Where that has brought her on the evolutionary scale, we are not quite sure.

In the six months before nationals, she performed with less passion and precision than at any point since her earliest years. Coach Frank Carroll wanted her to abandon the training schedule she was on. Instead, she abandoned Carroll. What followed was a couple of months of uneven performances.

When Kwan arrived here, the talk was Hughes was ready to push her. Ready to take the national title Kwan has held since 1998.

The Kwan who showed up for the short program Thursday night put that talk to rest. Her performance was magnificent. It evoked memories of years ago and brought the Staples Center crowd to its feet.

Kwan did not use the moment to lash out at critics. To bask in her redemption. She took the adulation in stride. As if she has been there before, which she has. As if she expected it, which she did.

"I remember being at nationals for the first time and I saw Nancy (Kerrigan) and I saw Tonya (Harding) and it was so exciting," Kwan said. "Now, it's like 10 years later and I know the schedule and it's pretty old news. I know the arenas, I know there's going to be a certain amount of people watching, I know that certain people are going to ask certain questions.

"In a way, it's still exciting. Like going to a movie and knowing the ending. Do you still go?"

That depends on how it ends.

Happy or sad?

The choice is yours, Michelle.

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