It may look like she's skating. But on the ice these days, Michelle Kwan says, she is singing -- and flying.
Standing on the ice, waiting for her music to begin, she breathes deeply. At the moment she hears the strumming of the harp, Kwan's eyes open a little wider, her face is taken over by emotion. She criss-crosses the ice, landing triple lutzes delicately, almost gently. She looks as if she could be running to embrace a lost sister, or reaching out for the love of her life. She is soaring.
The 17-year-old world champion is more focused than ever. Within the past year, something seems to have clicked. For Kwan, in Baltimore yesterday to prepare for tonight's Campbell's Soups Champions on Ice tour stop, it's a matter of truly being in sync, her heart, mind and soul aligned with her skates. What changed?
"It was paying attention and listening to the music, letting your body sing the music, letting the emotions pour in," Kwan said. "It's more enjoyable, to skate it and really feel it. It feels like I'm more a part of it."
That feeling helped Kwan capture her second world championship this past weekend in Minneapolis, an achievement undiminished by the absence of her closest competitor, Olympic gold medalistTara Lipinski.
Yesterday, Lipinski's announcement that she will turn professional almost overshadowed the arrival of dozens of other world-class skaters, who will perform tonight at the Baltimore Arena. But most of the other skaters seemed otherwise occupied, greeting and hugging each other, looking forward to a few months without the pressure of national and international competitions.
In shows like the 59-stop Campbell's tour, the emphasis is on entertainment. But in competition, skaters say the pressure can be enormous. They are judged not on what they do all year, week in and week out, but on what they do in a few minutes. Fifteen seconds into a program, one fall can throw them out of contention for a medal.
"You work hard all year to do the best you can in four minutes and 30 seconds," said Nicole Bobek, 20. Considered among the most talented skaters in the world, she has struggled with injuries. She entered the Olympics as a contender, but her injury, the pressure and her nerves hurt her. She fell and placed 17th.
"You have to calm down, tell yourself to regroup and let it go," said Bobek. She recently re-aggravated a left hip injury, and was not able to compete in last weekend's world championships. With the next Olympics four years away, she said yesterday she hasn't decided whether to follow Lipinski into the professional ranks or continue as an amateur.
Philippe Candeloro, who captured the bronze medal at the Olympics and is known for his showmanship and kissing audience members, donned a terry cloth headband yesterday to keep his curly hair out of his eyes.
"For me, there is no difference whether it's a competition or not," said Candeloro, who also has decided to go pro. "I think, 'There are 20,000 people waiting for me.' All the time, I try to skate for the audience."
For Kwan, getting involved in the design of her skating has made it more her own. She shows her choreographer what she likes and doesn't like. She's also reached the point where rather than skating as a character, as she's done in the past, she wants to be herself.
"When I'm 65, I want to look back and not see a character," Kwan said, "I want to see me."
Besides pressure, skaters also struggle with chronic injuries that never seem to have enough time to heal. They use shots and therapy and massage to keep themselves going. Kwan skated with a stress fracture in her left foot at the U.S. nationals, the Olympics and the World Championships.
Eric Lang, the athletic trainer for the Campbell's tour, compared skating on a blade about one-eighth of an inch wide to taking the ice in high heels. When a skater lands a jump, Lang said, the shock travels up through the knee, the hips and back, often causing injury.
Add to that a hectic schedule that allows for little warm-up time and high-risk developments like the newest jump in the men's arsenal -- the quad -- and skaters' risk of injury multiplies.
Yesterday, though, no one seemed to be thinking too much about competition and injury. After months of training, pressure and nerves, the skaters seemed relieved. Many, although rivals, are good friends.
In black tights and sweats, they ran through the show's ensemble numbers. All the heavy hitters were there: gold medalists Ilia Kulik, Oksana Baiul, and pair skaters Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev; Surya Bonaly, the French skater who can land a back flip on one foot; and Michael Weiss, the northern Virginia skater who has put quadruple jumps in his programs.
Rudy Galindo, the one-time U.S. national champion, clowned around with Lipinski. Bobek, also a U.S. national champion, impersonated other skaters and challenged Galindo and Lipinski to guess who she was.
"Most of our best friends are people we skate with and compete with," said Todd Sand, 34, who skates with his wife Jenni Meno, 27. They won the silver medal in the recent World Championships, and are also going pro.
"It's not necessarily who is fastest and strongest," Sand said. "Everyone has their own way of doing things. We all have respect for each other."
As of last night, just 1,100 of the $40 and $55 seats for tonight's show remained. Across the country, sell-outs of skating shows are common. On television, only the National Football League gets higher ratings than figure skating.
Perhaps audiences are tapping into what the skaters like Kwan say they feel. Bobek calls it freedom: "When I'm out there on the ice, I can do whatever I want. No one can touch me."
For Kwan, who envisions attending Harvard, maybe becoming an attorney, it's a feeling to be savored. For now, she just wants to fly.
What: Campbell's Soups Champions on Ice tour
Where: Baltimore Arena, Baltimore and Howard streets, 7: 30 tonight
Tickets: $40 and $55; limited supply remaining
Call: 410-347-2010 or 410-481-7328
Pub Date: 4/08/98