Kwan leads U.S. back to future U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL


ST. LOUIS -- Nancy Kerrigan has relinquished her amateur status and Tonya Harding has been banned from further competition, leaving Michelle Kwan to enjoy the calm after the storm of controversy that has engulfed women's figure skating for the past five months.

The diminutive 13-year-old, who became the top-ranked amateur the United States when Harding was stripped of her 1994 U.S. Championship last week, traveled from her home in Torrance, Calif., to put on a brief exhibition yesterday at the St. Louis Arena.

Kwan did not come to compete in the U.S. Olympic Festival -- she was the big winner a year ago in San Antonio -- but her performance helped kick off the first day of figure skating competition and introduce the nation to America's new generation of Olympic skaters.

"I was here last year and it was so exciting I wanted to come back and watch the competition," she said.

Of course, there was a lot more to it than that. She took an overnight flight to get to St. Louis and left hours later to perform in an evening exhibition back in California, a grueling schedule that only reinforced the notion that the U.S. Figure Skating Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee is eager to put the Tonya/Nancy fiasco behind it.

Not that the controversy did anything to diminish interest in one of the most popular sports in Olympic competition. Just the opposite. But the focus has shifted to the future, and it is a future that looks very bright for Michelle Kwan.

She was an alternate on this year's Olympic team and might have been more than a spectator if the USFSA had acted immediately to punish Harding for her involvement in the attempt to injure Kerrigan, but Kwan enjoyed the Olympic experience and expresses no regret that she did not get a chance to compete.

"No, because what has happened has happened," said Kwan, who finished second to Harding at the U.S. National Championships, then had to surrender her place on the Olympic team to Kerrigan. "You can't go back in time and correct all those things. I'm just going to get ready for the Goodwill Games. I think that is going to be very exciting. There will be some very good competition."

Everything is preparation. The exhibition. The mini-news conference. It is all part of her schooling. It is all leading up to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where she is expected to be a legitimate contender for the gold medal. Of course, that's the distant future when you're 13 years old, even when you are already a world-class athlete.

"Four years is a long time, so I'll just have to wait," she said. "I think it will help me, because I will be able to improve on everything."

In the meantime, Kwan is taking part in the Campbell's Soup Tour of World and Olympic champions, though she is yet to be either. Life must seem like one long road trip, but she insists that she is not leaving her youth behind.

"On tour, you meet a lot of people," she said. "We have days off and we go places. I don't think many people my age have a chance to go around the world, so I think it [her life] is better."

In comparison to most of the performers in St. Louis, Kwan is a seasoned veteran, but she is younger than all but two of the eight skaters who competed in yesterday's ladies technical program.

The leader after the first day was 12-year-old Tara Lipinski of Sugarland, Texas. Chrisha Gossard of Bear, Del., was second going into today's free skating portion of the competition, which carries twice the weight of the technical program.

Danielle and Steve Hartsell of Westland, Mich., finished No. 1 in the technical pairs program, but a youthful pair from Blue Jay, Calif. -- 11-year-old Natalie Vlandis and 12-year-old Jered Guzman -- captured the imagination of the crowd for a performance that left them third going into today's free skating program.

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