Embracing the glitter, chasing the gold
Figure skater Michelle Kwan has money, fame and glamorous friends. But her bid for an 8th straight U.S. title--and Olympic glory--goes on
By Philip Hersh
Tribune Olympic sports reporter
Published January 10, 2005
LOS ANGELES -- Michelle Kwan wheeled her black Corvette into the valet lot at the Staples Center. In front of her, waiting to be parked, was a yellow Lamborghini, with pivoting scissor doors and a $300,000 price tag.
"I wonder who was in that," Kwan said. "I still get star-struck."
She also gets star treatment from the Los Angeles Lakers. Complimentary parking. Complimentary tickets one row behind the $2,000 courtside chairs, where Jack Nicholson and Michael Moore and Larry David and Renee Zellweger and George Lopez were sitting for this December game against Phoenix.
"Is this not the way to go?" said Kwan, leading the way to the Chairman's Room, the A-list haunt at court level, where Nicholson dropped in a few minutes later.
This is the part of Kwan's life one rarely sees, the part that goes with having been the world's best for a decade in a sport that blends the physical and the fanciful--Hercules gone Hollywood. The glitziest team in sports obviously is happy to have another star entertainer in the audience.
It seems funny that she chews on celebrity gossip in People magazine with the hunger of fans like those who have turned an Internet fan forum into a shrine. Kwan, who can win a record-tying ninth U.S. figure skating title this week in Portland, Ore., is unsure of where and how she fits into a scene she enjoys being part of.
Are you a celebrity?
"I consider myself an athlete foremost."
But are you a celebrity?
"If a celebrity is someone who is well-known, I guess so."
Keanu Reeves once told Kwan, "The world needs more grace and beauty like you." Jennifer Garner gasped in delight when they met.
During the Lakers game, fans took pictures of Kwan, and one asked her to autograph the jacket of an Olympic history book. After the game, TV sitcom star Lopez waved her over for five minutes of shared pleasantries.
Kwan goes to eight or 10 Lakers games a year, usually on weekends when she drives from her current training base in the mountains above Palm Springs to hang out with family and friends near her home in Los Angeles.
"I feel like a superstar when I come here," the two-time Olympic medalist said. "I'm completely spoiled."
So do you expect to be treated like a VIP the rest of your life?
"My dad once told me, `If you had $20 shoes but now you are wearing $200 shoes, you better be able to wear $20 shoes again,'" Kwan said. "The one thing I've learned is never take it for granted. That's when celebrities get lost."
Kwan actually was wearing spike-heeled Sergio Rossi boots--a brand with prices beginning at more than $200--jeans, a studded belt and a tight red tank top that bared her midriff. She noticed early in the game that Zellweger, wearing jeans and a loose, black sweater, was sitting a few feet away. The skating star wanted to meet the Oscar-winning actress but couldn't think of the right person to ask for an introduction.
At halftime, Kwan left her seat and walked upstairs. Zellweger did the same a minute later. As the intermission ended, they came down the stairs talking to each other, then posed together as the skater's older sister, Karen, took snapshots.
"We were in the ladies room at the same time," Kwan said. "I said to her, `Oh, my God, I love all your work.' And she said, `It's reciprocal.'"
That's exactly what Zellweger said to you? "Reciprocal is a word you remember," Kwan said.
Memories like that help her endure the long days of three-a-day training sessions in isolated Lake Arrowhead, where it is hard to imagine how a 24-year-old avoids going stir crazy. She has no boyfriend, either in Los Angeles or in the mountains. Up there, as her father, Danny, ruefully notes when the bill arrives, the cell phone is Kwan's constant companion. The rest, as Henry James put it, is the madness of art.
"If she didn't want to do it, she wouldn't," said Karen, a former skater who now is married and the mother of a 9-month-old girl. "No one is forcing Michelle to skate."
Karen Kwan finished fifth at the 1995 senior nationals, when Nicole Bobek upset Michelle for the title. That was Michelle's third appearance at the senior nationals.
Heading into her 13th nationals, Michelle Kwan has come to feel amazed by her longevity and to be thankful that after all these years, she still can do triple jumps.
With five world titles and enough money to live on for the foreseeable future, Kwan is driven by a kid's enthusiasm for competition now tempered by the wisdom of old age, at least for a skater. So she insists on going at her own speed with the next Olympics a year away.
Maybe that ability to pace herself is why she has a chance to win an eighth straight national title and record-setting 12th national medal. Only three of the other eight women who have shared U.S. podiums with Kwan over the last 11 seasons still are competing, and only one, Sasha Cohen, apparently has any real chance to beat her.
"The toughest thing for me is to balance my life with skating because I have been in it so long," Kwan said over the roar of the Corvette's engine as the car rolled along freeways toward the Staples Center. "After the 2002 Olympics, if I wanted to stay in and compete, I wanted to do it on my terms."
It sounds like you want to have your cake and eat it too.
"I guess you can look at it that way," she said.
Grand Prix risk
Her terms included not skating in any Grand Prix event the last two seasons, when that series has been a testing ground for the International Skating Union's new scoring system. This season the new system also will be used for the first time at the world championships.
Kwan has been under fire for her decision to skip the Grand Prix. Some in the U.S. Figure Skating Association think she reneged on a commitment to the series this season, but she maintains there was no such commitment. Others find it foolhardy that she would not want to see how her skating is evaluated under the new system's parameters before the world meet.
"I'm definitely curious," Kwan said.
But not curious enough to try it out in the Grand Prix?
"In my position, you can't just try it out, try it out, try it out," Kwan said. "You become more selective. I see all the skaters who have dropped out with injuries the past two years, and the last thing I want to do after all the years pushing my body is travel, travel, travel."
Kwan said it will not bother her if the world meet judges slaughter her for what she believes is a good performance.
"I'm not in it just to win; I'm in it to skate well. They can slaughter you either way," she said, an element of whistling through the graveyard in her words.
Scoring well in the new system demands more footwork between jumps and higher-quality spins than Kwan did in her two ersatz competitions last fall, pro-ams judged the old way. She won the first and lost the second to her old rival, Russia's Irina Slutskaya, the leading skater in the world this season.
"I have to be honest: Working on new footwork, spins and things isn't easy," Kwan said.
Her work on those elements was interrupted in October by allergy problems that forced her to leave Lake Arrowhead for a month and train without a coach in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood. Kwan's coach, Rafael Arutunian, said she won't increase the difficulty of her programs for the national meet, where the old 6.0 system still is being used and she must finish in the top three to make the world team.
"You will see everything when she needs it," Arutunian said.
The technical demands of the new scoring system led Kwan to have the rules in front of her when she was choreographing this year's programs with Nikolai Morozov for the short program and Christopher Dean for the long. Kwan realizes she has made the job harder by not doing the Grand Prix series but insists she can overcome it by working "smarter."
"It's like teaching an old dog new tricks," she said.
Artist at work
Some would say Kwan already has shown all her tricks, that her body no longer will allow her to practice enough triple-triple jump combinations to do them in competition. Her victory last year at the nationals, in which her jumping seemed more confident than ever, was followed by flawed performances in every phase of the world meet, in which she was third.
"I don't think you can make a better Michelle Kwan than she is, which is amazing," said Arutunian, who has coached her for 14 months.
To the question of whether she is as good a skater as ever, without hesitation Kwan answered, "Yeah. It's a feeling for me, a feeling that I'm more tuned in, that I've been able to release more strength into my skating."
Her challenge this year became artistic: to interpret a version of "Bolero" choreographed by Dean. His interpretation of that music with ice-dance partner Jayne Torvill not only won the 1984 Olympic gold medal but is among skating's legendary performances.
"I have to make sure I keep the artistic integrity of my skating and not be pushed in a certain way--to follow the [new] rules and get Level 3 [difficulty] and win," Kwan said.
That is quite a trick. She could have stopped trying to jump through such hoops long ago, choosing instead to do a few ice shows and rake in the easy money and not have people wonder if she is Ahab chasing the white whale of an Olympic gold medal. Olympic gold is the only thing missing from a career topped only by Sonja Henie in the history of women's skating.
"I hope if I won in 1998 (silver) and 2002 (bronze), I would have stayed eligible and kept competing," she said in a teleconference 10 days ago.
Everyone expects the 2006 Olympics will be the end. Kwan has defied expectations for years.
"After 2006, does it matter if I quit or not?" Kwan said, walking out of the Staples Center. "I might go on, if I'm physically capable and still enjoying it. 2008, here we go. 2009, who knows, man? I don't."
It seems odd that Zellweger, at 34, can be in the prime of her career and Kwan, at 24, is considered at the end of hers. Kwan finds that less frustrating than encouraging.
"The fact Renee is such a great actress at 34 makes me realize I have plenty of time to find another career I can be happy and successful in when I'm finally finished skating," Kwan said.
Now Kwan was back where she started this part of her skating life--the part where the skater has a life--in the valet lot, waiting for her car after the game. The yellow Lamborghini came up first, as if on cue. Two silver-haired men got into it--apparently rich, but not obviously famous.
The Corvette arrived. It is 4 years old but shines like new. Kwan put a lot of quarters in a polishing machine to make sure it looked good.
"Couldn't pick you up in a dirty car," she said.
That never is the way to go in Los Angeles.
Spotlight on Portland
What: U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Portland, Ore.
Highlights: Thursday: men's and women's singles short programs; Friday: dance and pairs finals; Saturday: men's and women's singles finals.
Live telecasts: WLS-Ch. 7, Saturday, 3-5 p.m., men's final (plus dance final taped) and 7-10 p.m., women's final (plus pairs final and women's short program taped).
Plot lines: Can Michelle Kwan tie Maribel Vinson's record of nine U.S. titles? . . . Will notorious underachiever Sasha Cohen finally win one after going back to her former coach, John Nicks, in late December? . . . Is Kimmie Meissner, 15, ready for the big time? . . . Is men's defending champion Johnny Weir over the foot injury that led him to pull out of the Grand Prix final? . . . Will Rolling Meadows native Timothy Goebel, the 2001 champion, recover from: (a) being dumped by coach Frank Carroll over "philosophical differences" in early November, (b) finishing an embarrassing 10th in the short program at last year's nationals, then withdrawing because of physical and equipment problems and (c) the back injury that forced him to withdraw from his last two competitions? . . . Could anyone possibly care which of the painfully mediocre pairs teams wins?
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