The global figure skating community may remember Michelle Kwan's career as much for what she didn't win as for the five world championships and nine U.S. titles she did win. But even though she failed to claim Olympic gold, the class she showed after taking silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002 defined her legacy as much as any of her competitive triumphs did.
And she had a decade's worth of triumphs.
Kwan, raised in Southern California by working-class Chinese immigrants, arrived on the world stage at a time when U.S. figure skating was attracting all the wrong kind of attention. After Tonya Harding admitted to helping her ex-husband cover up an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, U.S. officials sent the 13-year-old Kwan to Norway as an alternate for the 1994 Winter Olympics, lest Harding be bounced from the team or Kerrigan's whacked knee remain too gimpy. (Kerrigan took silver, Harding finished eighth, and Kwan learned the value of staying above the fray.)
A month after the Lillehammer Games, Kwan flew to Chiba, Japan, to make her world championships debut. Needing a strong performance to guarantee that the U.S. would have two spots for the event the following year, she gamely delivered under pressure: The eighth-grader finished eighth in the world.
After Kwan placed fourth at worlds in 1995, coach Frank Carroll said he thought her girlish ponytail had kept her off the podium. So he persuaded Danny Kwan to allow his daughter to wear makeup for her competitions, and it was a physically transformed Michelle who arrived at the 1996 world championships in Edmonton. Skating to music from the Strauss opera, Kwan embodied the provocative character Salome in her hairstyle, makeup and costume. She also brought a new maturity to her competitive mindset, using that mettle to unseat defending champion Lu Chen of China with a stirring performance in the long program.
"That was her defining moment," says John Powers, the longtime Olympics writer for the Boston Globe. "That was when she came of age."
Kwan finished second to Tara Lipinski at the 1997 worlds, and again at the 1998 Nagano Games, where her cautious free skate left the door open for her younger and bolder countrywoman. She rebounded to win the global crown in 1998, 2000 and 2001. But at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where Kwan was favored to finally take Olympic gold, she faltered under the weight of expectation, while Sarah Hughes -- another younger, triple-triple-combo-throwing American -- had the skate of her life.
Distraught but undeterred, Kwan kept skating. She won her fifth world title in 2003 and her ninth U.S. title in 2005. Her lyrical style and her signature spiral series were as brilliant as ever. She struggled, though, to meet the technical demands of the new scoring system, placing fourth at the 2005 worlds in what would be her final international competition.
In retirement, Kwan earned a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and she has traveled the globe as a diplomacy envoy for the U.S. State Department. It's a fitting role for a former athlete who, Powers says, "never criticized another skater and always took the high road."
Indeed, while Kwan was the most artistic skater of her era, it was her off-ice demeanor and the elegance with which she endured competitive disappointment that distinguished her from her peers and fueled her popularity.
"It was not easy talking after the Olympics, but she always showed up to press conferences, she never made excuses, and she was always gracious," Powers says. "She understood that this is how champions behave."
-- Abigail Lorge, espnW