SALT LAKE CITY — Every step of the way, Michelle Kwan has insisted she's not motivated by the potential rewards at the end of her Olympic journey, but by the richness of the experiences en route.
The favorite to win the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games--especially after she entered the final phase of the competition in first place--she was passed by a more exuberant and relaxed Tara Lipinski and instead got the silver medal. Tested since then by injury and ennui, pushed to her physical limits by the phenoms who burst onto the figure skating scene every few years, the Torrance native has learned a lifetime of lessons in the past four years.
Since Nagano, Kwan has reached many milestones. She turned 21, briefly enrolled in college, began her first serious romance, dropped longtime coach Frank Carroll and, in between, won three world championships and four U.S. titles.
Yet, despite the distance she has traveled, she will be in the same situation tonight at the Salt Lake Ice Center as she was four years ago--the leader and favorite facing a younger, sassier and undeniably appealing challenger.
Kwan, who earned 5.9 scores (out of a possible 6.0) across the board for the presentation of her Rachmaninoff short program Tuesday, will need similar presentation and technical scores tonight to defeat Russia's Irina Slutskaya and teenage compatriots Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes, who rank 2-3-4. It won't be easy.
Slutskaya did a more technically demanding short program than Kwan and plans a more demanding long program, perhaps thinking she can trump Kwan's invariably good presentation scores with tough jumps that win her technical points. Cohen, the 17-year-old from Laguna Niguel, mesmerized the judges and audience with her grace and musicality, and proved in her second-place finish at last month's U.S. championships she could put a fresh spin on the much-used opera "Carmen."
Hughes can win gold only if someone above her falters. But the 16-year-old New Yorker has enormous talent--and a victory over Kwan to her credit at the Skate Canada competition in November. Maria Butyrskaya, the 1999 world champion from Russia, probably can't rise from fifth to first but isn't out of the medal picture.
"You just have to be calm," Kwan said recently. "Every competition is just like this. You've just got to put it together, I guess, and just enjoy it.
"Your preparation is already done. You're here now, and you just want to keep up what you've been training for a long time."
Any of the top three can win the gold medal by being ranked first in tonight's free skate, worth two-thirds of the final score. For Hughes to win, she would have to be judged first in the free skate and Kwan would have to rank third or lower.
No one has moved up from fourth to first at the Olympics, but it has happened at the World Championships, albeit under a different scoring system.
At the 1982 world competition, Elaine Zayak was fourth in the compulsory figures and 10th in the short program, placing her seventh overall entering the long program. She won the final phase and won the title, but the long program wasn't as large a percentage of the final score as it is now.
In the only similar rally since compulsory figures were eliminated, Elvis Stojko of Canada won the 1997 world title despite ranking fourth after the short program. However, he had help when leader Alexei Urmanov withdrew because of an injury.
Hughes' coach, Robin Wagner, said Hughes is undaunted.
"She was not down at all. She's happy with her position," Wagner said Wednesday, when the competitors declined to speak to reporters after their practice.
"She feels very comfortable and relaxed fighting for position. She's just looking at it as she'd love to get a medal, and she's certainly capable of doing it from fourth place. She feels like she's not holding onto a place, she's going for it....
"She's maybe better off being in a position where she's the chaser, instead of being chased. It fires up a little something in her competitive nature. She's pleased to be fourth after the girls put out a lot of clean, strong short programs."
No matter what happens, several intriguing possibilities could become reality.
Kwan, already assured of figure skating immortality with four world titles, six U.S. titles and an Olympic silver medal, could become the third woman to win the gold after winning silver, as Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss have done. Slutskaya could become the first Russian woman to win a women's singles gold medal. Cohen could win gold without having competed at the World Championships, flouting conventional wisdom that figure skaters must pay their dues for years before the judges let them triumph.
It's also possible the U.S. women will record their first Olympic figure skating medals sweep, a distinction earned by their male counterparts in 1956 when Hayes Jenkins, Ronnie Robertson and David Jenkins finished 1-2-3.