Kwan, Michelle Wing

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KWAN, Michelle Wing

(b. 7 July 1980 in Torrance, California), figure skater who in 1996 became the youngest world champion in U.S. history and in 1998 was winner of the Olympic silver medal in Nagano, Japan.

Kwan was the third of three children born to Daniel Kwan, a restaurant owner from Canton (now Guangzhou), China, and Estella Wing, a former nurse and television news anchor from Hong Kong. The couple had moved to the United States in 1974, where they ran a restaurant in Torrance, California, until their retirement in the 1990s. Gymnastics was Kwan's first sport, but her adored brother Ron's affinity for ice hockey soon had Michelle and her older sister clamoring to learn how to skate. At age five, Michelle began taking lessons at a rink in a mall near her home. In her autobiography, she wrote: "I got my first taste of what it's like to fly." In 1988, at age seven, Kwan watched on television as U.S. skater Brian Boitano won the men's gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games. Her dream was born, and she vowed to compete in the Olympics someday.

The Kwan family struggled financially to pay for the lessons, skates, and clothes required for both Michelle and her sister, Karen, also a competitive skater and ultimately a three-time top-ten finisher in the nationals. In 1991 the sisters won scholarships to Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, California. There, Kwan met her future coach, Frank Carroll. Already a regional and sectional medalist at the junior level, Kwan turned to Carroll to prepare for her first junior nationals, which were then three weeks away. She placed ninth, below her expectations, but was no less determined to advance to the top level. While her coach was away at a conference, she persuaded her father to take her to the test which advanced her to the status of senior skater. Carroll was initially furious at the move. She placed sixth in the 1993 senior nationals (which Nancy Kerrigan won), and soon won a gold medal at the Olympic Festival in San Antonio.

The next year brought an unprecedented level of attention to women's figure skating and unexpectedly thrust Kwan into the national media spotlight. Just before the 1994 nationals, Kwan shared practice time with Kerrigan. As the two left the ice together, Kwan saw Kerrigan walk behind a curtain area backstage, then heard Kerrigan scream. She had been struck in the knee by an acquaintance of the husband of Kerrigan's chief rival, Tonya Harding. Kwan finished second behind Harding at the competition, and briefly won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. The U.S. Figure Skating Association ruled that Kerrigan could skate in the Olympics, but ordered Kwan to travel to Norway as an alternate. Soon she was overwhelmed by a swarm of reporters clamoring to interview the pony-tailed adolescent. She did not get to compete, but enjoyed the small taste of her Olympic dream. A few months later she placed eighth in her first world championship.

In 1995 Kwan finished second in the U.S. Nationals and was elated by her two flawlessly performed programs at the world championship. But despite mistakes by other skaters, she placed fourth when Chinese skater Lu Chen won first place. She realized that judges and others perceived her as a "kid skater" and resolved to mature her style and develop the artistic side of her skating.

What followed was a breakthrough year for Kwan. Her choreographer, Lori Nichol, chose music from Salome, Richard Strauss's musical drama based on the New Testament story in which Salome performed the dance of the seven veils to earn the head of John the Baptist on a platter. At first, fifteen-year-old Kwan was shocked when she learned the story, but she warmed to the role. It led her to first-place victories at the 1996 nationals and made her at the time the youngest U.S. skater to win the world championship. But she would only briefly hold that distinction, as Tara Lipinski, an even younger skater, was moving up through the ranks of skating.

The following year, Kwan delivered a disastrous performance at the 1997 nationals, falling three times. In her autobiography, she wrote "I was so busy trying not to fall that I forgot to feel what was in my heart. I'd forgotten about my love of skating." At the world championship, she stumbled during her short program. But other events—including the diagnosis of her friend and fellow skater Scott Hamilton with testicular cancer—helped her put her mistakes into perspective. She rebounded with a beautiful long program performance and took the silver medal behind Lipinski.

Kwan and Lipinski were well-publicized rivals as they headed into the 1998 Olympics. Kwan was favored, having bested Lipinski in the 1998 U.S. Nationals with scores that included fifteen of a possible eighteen perfect 6.0 scores for artistry. But Kwan had been hampered by a stress fracture in her left foot. At the Olympics, she felt she skated well, but her performance could not match fifteen-year-old Lipinski's, and Kwan took the silver medal. As reported in People magazine, Kwan's coach told her: "You were wonderful, but it was not your greatest performance. It wasn't exciting." Kwan then "roared back," winning the world championship two months later (a victory marred by the absence of Lipinski, who had turned professional). By the time of the Goodwill Games that summer, the New York Times wrote, "her graciousness in defeat may even have made her more popular than she would have been in victory."

At the 1999 world championship, mistakes caused the favored Kwan to claim the silver behind the Russian skater Maria Butyrskaya. That fall, Kwan decided to enter the University of California at Los Angeles, the first time she had attended classes since eighth grade (she finished her secondary schooling with a tutor). She pushed ahead, winning gold medals at both the national and world championships in 2000 and being named that spring one of People magazine's "Fifty Most Beautiful People." The honor marked her transformation into a "svelte sophisticate" who experimented with new hairstyles, makeup, and clothes on her petite frame.

In 2001 Kwan was once again on top, successfully defending her title at both the national and world championships. But over the past two years she had endured some behind-the-scenes criticisms for a lack of freshness in her skating, and in June 2001 she announced the end of her eight-year collaboration with choreographer Nichol. She said she was searching for a new direction as she headed toward the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

When at her top form, Kwan had earned the title of the greatest women's figure skater in the world, distinguished by her mix of artistry, athleticism, and drive. Her career since becoming a senior skater at age twelve in 1993 had been marked by a series of highs and lows, but she always distinguished herself with the poise and determination she showed in pulling herself back from unexpected losses or below-par performances. She had said in news conferences that she would only be twenty-five years old at the time of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and would be in no hurry to retire from competitive skating, anticipating, as a master of quick turnarounds, many victories to come in her career.

Kwan's autobiography is Michelle Kwan: Heart of a Champion, with Laura James (1997). The Los Angeles Times wrote about her at the beginning of her career (14 May 1993), and she has been profiled repeatedly since by the New York Times (4 Jan. 1998; 1 Feb. 1998; 20 Feb. 1998; 29 July 1998); the Washington Post (28 Mar. 1999); People (29 Mar. 1999); and the Chicago Tribune (14 June 2001).

Leigh Dyer