Hall induction a reflection of Kwan's stature
WASHINGTON -- Six years removed from the ice, Michelle Kwan's hands still give away what she used to do for a living and did better over the long haul than anyone else. Her hands travel through the space around her as she talks, rising and dipping like swallows, each gesture followed through all the way down to the fingertips.
Back in the day, those hands wove and swooped to punctuate spins and landings. They extended 180 degrees apart to accentuate Kwan's famous spiral. Last week, as she chatted over lunch in her quiet, re-gentrified Logan Circle neighborhood, they came to rest briefly as she considered what she would like her legacy to be.
At first, she demurred.
"To be remembered is enough," she said.
Then she gave it a little more thought.
"Skating should be performance, not just a checklist of jumps," Kwan said. "I hope that I did it justice in the sense that the choreography worked well with the music, the costume and being able to bring it alive. If someone were to ask a skater that's too young to remember me, and they were watching YouTube, hopefully it stands out as something that was making a performance and a package of what skating is all about ... I saw every long program as a four-minute opportunity to make it seamless."
Kwan's grace of expression, coupled with fierce will, kept her at the top of her sport from girlhood well into her 20s. She twirled into collective memory as an understudy warming up in the wings of the grandiose Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan drama. She came of age the season she played the sultry Salome and went on to win five world championships, yet left competition with her greatest wish, an Olympic gold medal, unfulfilled. Along the way, Kwan managed to be both ethereal and endearingly flesh-and-blood. Her body of work made her upcoming induction into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame a foregone conclusion.
The formal honors will take place Friday in a private ceremony in San Jose, Calif.; on Saturday, the 31-year-old Kwan will step into the rink where she won the first of her nine national titles in 1996 and address the crowd attending this year's U.S. championships. Many will look at her and see the last in a long line of female figure-skating royalty from this country, with no clear heiress yet apparent.
These kinds of occasions call for reminiscence and acknowledgement, and Kwan intends to recognize the people who made her success possible, including her proud, intense immigrant parents, Danny and Estella, her longtime coach Frank Carroll, and choreographer Lori Nichol.
"I'm better because of skating," Kwan said with typical understatement, adding that she carries its mental regimen with her wherever she goes: "I reset my goals every year. I step back, ask, 'Where do I need to put more effort? Am I mentally sharp? Am I happy? Is this working? Will this lead to where I want to be?'"
Ever since Kwan tearfully announced that injury would keep her out of the 2006 Winter Olympics, she has focused resolutely ahead. Her vision of what she might become got a serendipitous boost just two months after the Turin Games when she was invited to a state dinner at the White House and seated at the head table with President George W. Bush, Chinese president Hu Jintao and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose youthful pursuits included figure skating.
Kwan had already applied to the University of Denver -- Rice's alma mater -- to complete an undergraduate degree in international relations.
"We connected," Kwan said. "At the end of the conversation I said, 'Let me know if there's ever anything I can do, in terms of the State Department, don't hesitate to call on me.' It started a conversation and one thing led to another."
Specifically, Kwan was named the country's first Public Diplomacy Envoy, and has made half a dozen overseas trips with government delegations. She rubs shoulders with ambassadors and policy-makers and interacts with young people in her unpaid role. Kwan also serves on the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition and the Special Olympics' board of directors. She earned a master's degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University last spring and moved to Washington. She rarely skates any more, preferring to practice yoga several days a week.
Yet Kwan isn't ready to define her dream job and views her second career as a work in progress. She said she felt behind when she re-entered academia and is still listening and absorbing. It will surprise no one who followed her that she is approaching the next phase with inquisitiveness, humility and not a single trace of celebrity entitlement.
"I would like to do something that's different than what I'm used to for the past 20 years of my life, and that's not an easy task," she said.
Whatever path she chooses, Kwan should be better than most at weathering setbacks. On the two stages where she most wanted to prevail -- the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 -- she was outperformed by Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, respectively.
"I still can't watch the 2002 [long program]," Kwan said. "I know exactly what happened. I seized. The '98 one is easier, because I didn't make any mistakes and I thought maybe I had a chance to win."
A deep blue vein of sympathy runs just beneath the skin of her fans' admiration. Kwan has gotten used to people approaching her and saying they wish they could rewind the tape and alter one of those outcomes.
"Trust me, I've encountered so many where they breathed it with me, they felt it, 'I prayed for you' ... and I love that," Kwan said. "It is what it was. It would have been amazing, had I won '98 or 2002 or both. But I still wonder, would I have made the same choices? Would I have made the same discoveries as I did? I'm grateful for what it is and I can't take it back."
Even without Olympic gold, Kwan embodied skating perfection as one of the last great champions allowed to achieve it -- in the form of a 6.0 under the old, more subjective scoring system. Kwan's finest performances moved judges to tears and left audiences with a holistic impression, the kind of pleasure that hovers in a hall where a great symphony has just been played.
"No, no, no," Kwan said emphatically to the notion that she ever delivered a flawless program. But when pressed, she admits her performance at nationals in Philadelphia in 1998, when her lighter-than-air, lyrical skating earned 15 of 18 perfect scores and sent her to Nagano as the favorite, came the closest to the confluence of emotion and movement she always strived for.
Kwan's preparation for the event was not ideal. A stress fracture in one toe had severely limited her training for months. But inside the mysterious vessel that is an athlete's heart, that somehow transformed into a license to skate with abandon rather than anxiety. She has a vivid memory of exhaling before she pushed off to the first notes of her music, and re-enacted that cleansing breath last week, a look of peace stealing across her face.
"When I was fearless -- those were the times I did the best," she said. "But I was also very trained. It wasn't as if I jumped off a cliff knowing I didn't have a parachute. I don't know what the secret was."
Kwan will be honored this weekend because of her ability to make a powerful statement on blades that barely whispered. But seeing her name carved into the walls of her sport's pantheon is not enough to sustain her for the rest of her life. She has known that since she was a 12-year-old commuter in the passenger seat of her father's car as he made the 90-minute drive from Los Angeles to the rink in Lake Arrowhead.
"What are your other hopes?" Danny Kwan continually asked his daughter. "What are your other dreams? What do you want to study? What is your passion?"
Michelle got the point -- there would be life after skating, and she would need to train for it just as hard. She owns two rinks in California and speaks three languages, but she is pressing on, searching for what to do with her hands, how to channel her education and her interests into one flowing piece that is up to her standards.
"People assume I have this direction like I did when I was skating," Kwan said. "It was so defined when I was a skater ... Where do I spend most of my time? I still don't know."
She still wants to be the total package, and that, rather than medals won or lost, may be the most memorable thing about Michelle Kwan.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.