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Jokes Aside, Kwan Looks to the Future

Skating: She's laughing off Olympic barbs and considering hiring a coach.

April 04, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michelle Kwan has heard the jokes and the jabs.

The popular TV sitcom "Will and Grace" went for laughs at her expense recently when Will, assuming Kwan would win the figure skating gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, gave his parents tickets for a cruise featuring skating lessons from Kwan. After her third-place finish, the title characters disparaged the gift.

"It seemed like a bigger deal when we bought the package," Grace said.

Even worse, ESPN listed Kwan among the biggest chokers in sports because she fell in her Olympic long program and won the bronze medal behind U.S. compatriot Sarah Hughes and Russia's Irina Slutskaya.

Some barbs sting, but Kwan tries to laugh them off while pondering whether to continue a career in which she has won a U.S.-record seven medals at the world championships, six U.S. titles, Olympic silver in 1998 and bronze at Salt Lake City.

"Sometimes it's a compliment," Kwan said of being the butt of jokes in non-sports media. "If they didn't think the audience would know who I am, they wouldn't use my name. It would be 'Kwan who? What?'

"I was talking to Serena Williams about it, and she told me you know you've made it when you're in the National Enquirer. That's how I have to look at it. It's foolish. They don't understand what's involved and how many other triples I did."

Speaking by phone Wednesday from Daytona Beach, Fla., where she prepared to begin the four-month John Hancock Champions on Ice tour, the 21-year-old Torrance native said she will spend the next few months reevaluating her season and her future. However, she has decided to hire a coach if she remains in Olympic-eligible competitions, with that coach possibly doubling as a choreographer.

Kwan fired longtime coach Frank Carroll last October, saying she needed to take control of her skating. Her father, Danny, accompanied her to competitions but both said he wasn't coaching her.

After some unusual missteps, she seemed to right herself by winning the U.S. championships at Staples Center in January, establishing herself as the favorite at Salt Lake City. However, she fell on her triple flip in her "Sheherezade'' Olympic free skate and couldn't pull off the triple-triple combination jump that might have helped maintain the lead she held after the short program. Hughes, 16, rallied from fourth to win on the strength of an animated and demanding routine.

Kwan performed a triple-triple at last month's World Championships at Nagano, Japan, but her short program was flawed. She finished second to Slutskaya.

"For sure, that's my No. 1 concern," Kwan said of hiring a coach. "Who do I find? There are a lot of things I have to look into if I want to keep going.

"I've had a lot of approaches and I've considered a few. It's in the works .... I'll talk to a lot of coaches. Finding the right coach is tough. You might not immediately click. It may take a month or two. It can definitely make a very big difference. My dad has been very helpful and supportive, but he doesn't have the background a coach has."

Kwan, who is close to her family and has homes in Lake Arrowhead and the South Bay, doesn't want to leave Southern California. Unless a top-notch coach relocates here, Kwan's choices are limited.

She's unlikely to return to Carroll, who coaches Olympic bronze medalist and world silver medalist Tim Goebel and U.S. fourth-place finisher Angela Nikodinov at El Segundo. John Nicks is also out because he coaches Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel, who was second at the U.S. championships and fourth at Salt Lake City.

Kwan has had choreography help from Peter Oppegard, who coaches at the same Torrance rink as her sister, Karen. But he has never coached an elite skater like Kwan, a four-time world champion.

"I don't want to move. I want to finish my education at UCLA," said Kwan, who has taken classes in Westwood but put school on hold to train for Salt Lake City. "I have to put everything into consideration--my school, my family, my skating."

Among her options is reducing her schedule next season, as she did after the 1998 Olympics, and competing only at the U.S. championships in Dallas and the World Championships in Washington. She could also compete in pro-ams sanctioned by the International Skating Union. Only if she appeared in a non-sanctioned event, such as the Stars on Ice tour, would she lose her Olympic eligibility.

Whether competing or exploring potential TV, movie or broadcasting roles through her promotional contract with the Walt Disney Co., Kwan will plunge in whole-heartedly.

"I don't want to do anything halfway and sort of stay around for four years," she said, referring to the 2006 Turin Winter Games.

"I want to make sure it's for the right reasons. I love competing

"[Salt Lake City] is going to be part of my life, and you've got to be able to live with it. It was a big disappointment, but I still came home with a medal. It all comes down to the slightest mistake. If I dropped my right arm on the [rotation of] the flip in practice, I would have tried to learn from that mistake. Unfortunately, it came at a crucial time. You can't psychoanalyze things. That's the way it happens.''

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