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Friday, July 28, 2006 - Page updated at 09:21 AM

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Ice skater Michelle Kwan a paragon of the sport

Seattle Times arts critic

Don't cry for Michelle Kwan.

Yes, we know this beloved American skater hasn't won a coveted Olympic gold medal in several tries. And that she endured a heartbreaker in Torino, Italy, this year, when she had to withdraw from competition due to a recurring injury.

And, yes, we do understand that she has just turned 26 — which in champion skater years is something like 67.

But you have to believe Kwan, who performs in two shows Saturday at the Everett Events Center with Champions on Ice, when she insists she's just dandy, thank you.

"You have to live in the moment, and I feel like the luckiest person alive," said Kwan, from her parents' home in Southern California. "A lot of people would love to be in my position! I wear beautiful skating dresses made by Vera Wang. I perform before thousands of people. And I do what I love most." What Kwan loves most happens to give millions of others immense pleasure, too. A wondrously lithe, strong and soulful skater, her performances often have a seamless beauty. When she's at her best, watching her move is like seeing a bolt of the finest silk unfurl across a rink.

That combination of limpid elegance and power is increasingly rare these days, as competitive figure skaters are graded more heavily on their execution of difficult jumps and footwork than on their artistry.

Kwan acknowledges this. "A few years ago, they said it's all about the jumping, and I was called the little jumping bean! Then I got older, and I was the lyrical skater, and I wasn't jumping enough. It was, 'Why isn't she doing triple-triples?' "

Coming up

Champions on Ice, featuring Michelle Kwan, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Everett Events Center, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett; $46-$66 (866-332-8499 or www.everetteventscenter.com).

"Unfortunately," she continued, "the new rules have really changed the sport. You have to evolve with the new judging system, and I had a tough time evolving. But as the rules change, I do hope the lyrical, beautiful part of the sport doesn't disappear. I'd hate to see that."

Though she can be candidly critical of the sport she's been a major force in since her teens, when chatting with a reporter Kwan is as gracious and upbeat as her public image suggests.

The native Californian has been a class act since she emerged as a skating superstar in 1996 — the year when, age sweet 16, she won the first of five World Championships and nine U.S. National championships.

Kwan actually began skating at 5, and it runs in the family: a brother played hockey and an older sister also skated competitively.

But there was no doubt that little Michelle (she's still just 5'2") was something special. She handily mastered the jumps, the spins, the change-of-edge spirals (her signature move). However, it was her innate sense of musicality and radiant ice presence that set her apart, as she performed to music ranging from Rachmaninoff classics to Sting's "Fields of Gold".

"I took dance classes when I was real young, and it's just the way I move," Kwan reflected. "Skating also gives you a chance to express your emotions. And I've always been this way — with my heart and soul written right on my chest."

Yet through her long, remarkably consistent career on ice, Kwan has been a tough competitor, too. She changed coaches more than once, and coached herself. She performed while ill, and maintained a steely resolve to keep chasing Olympic gold — after winning silver at Japan's 1998 Games in Nagano, and bronze at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Last winter, after that groin-muscle injury had kept her away from key qualifying contests, Kwan petitioned for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team headed to Torino. To prove her readiness, she skated a program with four triple jumps for a monitoring committee. They passed her with flying colors.

But during practice in Torino, the stiffness and pain from her injury returned. She won wide respect for quickly bowing out of the Olympic team, allowing Emily Hughes to take her place.

Today, Kwan voices no regrets about the decision. "It was pretty intense, and definitely so emotional," she recalled, "but it's not all about the gold. It's the journey, completely the journey. It's being inspired, motivated, believing in yourself."

She's in good company for the Champions on Ice show's journey: Fellow Olympians Irina Slutskaya, Evgeni Plushenko and Sasha Cohen are also in the star-studded cast. (Under current rules, many skaters who perform in touring shows are still eligible for competitions.)

In Everett, Kwan will perform a solo to Natalie Cole's rendition of the heartfelt Leon Russell ballad, "A Song for You." She explains, "I heard it, and I knew I had to skate it."

She also observed, "When I go out on the ice people feel they know me, because they do. I've been on tour since I was 13. It's fun — we have a blast. And I really, really love Seattle."

As for the future, Kwan is not committing to or ruling out anything — including skating in the next Olympic Games. "I'm playing it all by ear. Right now, I'm still sort of nursing the injury. I do a lot of water therapy, swimming laps and doing exercises in the water."

But Kwan promises, convincingly, that she's not afraid of life after skating. "I have so many interests outside skating! I look at what's next as a challenge. I would love to get into politics. I want to finish college at UCLA, majoring in political science or international studies.

"I'm ready to learn, just to learn. Skating's so incredible, I just hope to find something else to do that I love as much."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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