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Still the queen of the ice

Michelle Kwan was in gold-medal form at Skate America in the Spokane Arena in late October of 2002. 
 (File/Spokesman-Review / The Spokesman-Review)
Michelle Kwan was in gold-medal form at Skate America in the Spokane Arena in late October of 2002. (File/Spokesman-Review / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Armour Associated Press

Michelle Kwan wasn’t thinking about her legacy, how many medals she’d win or the records she’d break when she showed up for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships way back in 1993.

Just 12 and still baby-faced – she wasn’t even old enough to wear makeup – she was too in awe of her surroundings, giddy at the prospect of sharing the ice with skaters she’d grown up watching.

More than a decade later, she still feels that sense of wonder. Only now it’s her own career that prompts it, a span as impressive for its duration as its success, a run that might not be replicated.

“I’ve never seen myself as a legacy. I want to skate for fun and the respect of the sport,” said Kwan, who can tie Maribel Vinson Owen’s long-standing record of nine U.S. titles at the nationals that begin Sunday and conclude Jan. 15 in Portland.

“I feel a sense of cosmic connection because of Maribel Vinson Owen and Frank Carroll,” she added, “so this is a very special year for me.”

Owen is somewhat of a mentor-by-proxy for Kwan. She trained with Carroll for nine years, and Carroll would often talk about Owen, his coach, the lessons she’d taught him and the high standard she’d set. That Kwan has had the staying power, and the success, to match Vinson surprises even her.

The shy little girl has grown into a beautiful woman recognized worldwide. She’s started and finished high school, and tried college. The faces around her have changed – anyone know where Tara Lipinski is these days? – and the sport has undergone a massive makeover with its new judging system that replaces the century-old 6.0 mark.

Yet Kwan keeps going.

“That’s a hard question to answer for me,” she said when asked to explain her longevity. “I always thought after 2002 I’d hang up my skates and turn professional, go on tour and do shows. I don’t know when it is enough. I still enjoy it.”

Some wonder if she’d still be here, pushing herself, if she’d won a gold medal at the 1998 or 2002 Olympics. It’s the one hole in her impressive resume, and the ghost of that elusive prize is never far away. She skates under banners with the Olympic rings on them daily.

But she insists that isn’t driving her.

“If I really think about it, it’s the competition atmosphere that I enjoy so much; the intensity. I love being nervous and pushing myself to the max,” she said. “I think it’s the best of both worlds now that I have. I can enjoy the summer on tour and I can have (a competitive) career as well.”

And it’s not as if Kwan is some aging superstar trying to hold on to one last bit of glory. The 24-year-old remains the sport’s gold standard when she’s at her peak, with a powerful beauty and grace no one can match. She’s won seven straight U.S. titles and eight overall, trailing only Owen, and is a heavy favorite to win again next weekend.

Kwan also is a five-time world champion, and has medaled at every worlds since 1996.

She did slip a little last year, finishing third to end a nine-year streak of winning either the gold or silver medal. And she doesn’t have the jumps like the mighty mites, struggling with triple-triple combinations when other skaters are trying quadruple jumps or triple axels. That could hurt her in the new points-based scoring system, where difficult jumps have a higher point value than other technical elements, such as spins or spirals.

Kwan has never skated under the new system because she skipped the Grand Prix series the past two seasons, but has designed her programs around the new system.

Though she hasn’t committed to the Turin Olympics and is careful to say she’s taking one thing at a time, she sounds like someone who wants one more shot at gold. Maybe not so much for the medal, but for the journey.

“That’s not the only thing I’m in the sport for. It’s the everyday process,” she said. “I’m the luckiest girl alive. I get to perform in front of thousands of people, do what I love doing.

“It’s going to be hard for me one day to just walk out of the ice rink and say, ‘I’m done.’ “

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