Iron Will, Golden Dreams

OFF THE ICE, THERE ARE NO traces of the exotic and erotic ladies that Michelle Kwan has portrayed on skates. No Salome of the seven veils, no Indian queen of the Taj Mahal, just a sweet-faced 16-year-old plopped in the back corner of her favorite Belgian-waffle restaurant and fretting about age-old teen worries.

""My real regret is not having had braces,'' she says, fingering the offending teeth.

""Their beauty is, they look natural,'' says her dad, Danny.

""But they're crooked,'' says Michelle.

""Nobody's perfect,'' offers her mother, Estella.

""But,'' insists Michelle, ending all discussion, ""you could be!''

It is with absolute faith in that possibility that she storms the ice each time out, a pursuit that has already established Kwan as America's next great figure-skating queen. Last year, at 15, Michelle won her first national championship, then stunned her more seasoned rivals by becoming the youngest American ever to win the world title. She is a prohibitive favorite to repeat that double, starting this week in Nashville, Tenn., and seems destined, just one year hence, to land on the gold-medal podium at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. ""I know I'm supposed to be surprised by what I've accomplished,'' says Kwan. ""But why should I be? Everyone says it happened so fast, but it didn't seem fast to me. I was out there every day, all the time working and working and skating well.''

As Kwan emerged, the skating world underwent epic changes, and she has been the greatest beneficiary. Before Tonya vs. Nancy in 1994, Olympic aspirants were virtually anonymous--and often penniless--until their Olympic moment. But the recent proliferation of competitions, tours and made-for-TV events has already made Kwan a star. By next month, Michelle will have performed on TV 28 separate times in one year. And, even without an Olympic medal, her annual income may exceed seven figures. ""There's so much skating now that people can't tell which is the Olympics,'' says Kwan. ""They see me so much they think I am an Olympic champion. I tell them, "Not yet,' but they're still convinced. You find yourself nodding, "Yeah, yeah, whatever'.''

Those fans may just be prescient. Her veteran coach, Frank Carroll, says Kwan possesses the champion's critical attribute: ""a core of metal. Michelle is tough as nails.'' Few would disagree, not after Kwan's virtuoso performance at the 1996 Worlds in Edmonton, Alberta. Going into the free skate, she trailed the favorite, China's Lu Chen, slated to skate first. Kwan and Carroll retreated to ""a secret place'' in the arena to try and relax. But they couldn't escape the PA system; Kwan heard Lu Chen's scores, including two perfect 6.0s for artistic merit.

""I had about two seconds to say something intelligent and meaningful before she had to go out and skate,'' Carroll recalls. ""So I told her those were fabulous marks, but the judges had left room for her to win.'' Kwan looked up at him and said, ""You're right.'' Says Carroll: ""I knew right then she was going to win.'' Kwan knew it, too. ""Nothing could stop me,'' she says. ""If a brick wall had been on the ice, I would have just rammed through it.'' Kwan got her own pair of 6.0s and won the nod from six of nine judges.

Kwan and Carroll prepare for such challenges every day at the Ice Castle training center, near her home in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., a mountain resort town east of L.A. When Michelle arrived feeling sick one recent morning, Frank coaxed her to skate. ""Imagine you have the flu, you feel dizzy and terrible--but it's the Olympics,'' he told her. ""Let's try to pull this program off. Michelle didn't miss a beat and she left feeling pretty good about herself.''

Carroll's coaching philosophy is simple: ""Do the same thing hour after hour and go through your programs religiously so that your body becomes machinelike. I want Michelle to be like the perfect Mercedes-Benz part.'' Michelle is her own worst critic. Watching a videotape of herself, a dismayed Kwan groans, ""Look at my arm. It looks like a chicken wing.'' And when she actually does skate badly, she exacts her own penance. During a recent practice run-through of her free skate, Kwan crashed to the ice on her final jump, a double axel. (Kwan's program may be the toughest ever performed by a woman; it has eight jumps, seven of them triples--and three jumps occur in the final minute, when most skaters are icebound with fatigue.) When practice ended, she repeated the double axel again and again until she was squeezed off the ice by the Zambo- ni circling her. ""I've learned that winning isn't about miracles on ice,'' she said. ""It's all about training.''

What she hasn't learned on the ice has come from her parents, who immigrated to L.A. from Hong Kong in 1974. Danny went to work for Pacific Bell and ran a few businesses, including a Chinese restaurant. Estella was soon shuttling three kids to the rink. Ron, the oldest, was a hockey player and Karen a figure skater good enough to place fifth behind her sister at the Nationals last year. But it was the youngest, Michelle, whose talent and mind-set were unique. When Karen competed in the 1991 Nationals in Minneapolis, Michelle was forced to practice at a small outdoor rink. ""Michelle was furious the whole time,'' recalls Danny. ""She kept saying, "I'm never doing this again. I'm not coming to just watch'.''

Michelle made it to the 1992 Nationals, competing at the junior level and finishing a poor ninth. But soon after, without her coach's consent, she took--and passed--the test that would move the 11-year-old to the senior ranks. ""I was flabbergasted that this 11-year-old would go ahead without my blessing,'' says Carroll. ""And she wasn't exactly apologetic. She said she wanted to challenge herself against the best. What was I going to do, stand her in the corner for a month? I told her, "Believe me, little girl, we have our work cut out for us'.''

Kwan was always a natural leaper, but concedes, ""I didn't even know what artistic was.'' Today her sense of theater and musical interpretation are remarkably mature. But the most dramatic change occurred after the 1995 Worlds, where Carroll thought Michelle, who finished fourth, deserved a medal. It was clear to Frank that the judges preferred grown-up ladies to his cute little girl, who had barely outgrown her Fred Flintstone Halloween costume. Kwan, who is now 5 feet 2 and 100 pounds, still fumes: ""I hated when people said I was cute.'' Six months later, Michelle--hair up, eyebrows plucked, makeup layered on--skated out for her first performance of the fall season as the wickedly seductive Salome. ""I knew it would work before she even took the ice,'' Carroll remembers, ""when I heard people saying, "Who is that girl with Frank?' ''

A few months later ""that girl'' was world champion. Only the great Sonja Henie, who was 14, and Oksana Baiul, who was 15 but a few months younger than Kwan, have been younger ladies' champs. This year Kwan has already won all six of her competitions, even defeating former Olympic champ Kristi Yamaguchi in their first head-to-head meeting. Kwan doesn't worry about ""peaking too early''--in a season or a lifetime. ""You can peak and then peak again,'' she says. ""Peak is only in your head.'' But exhaustion isn't just a state of mind. With all the big-money offers, her agent Shep Goldberg says, ""the hardest part today is learning to say "No'.''

It's a little easier in the close-knit Kwan family, where skating triumphs don't outrank old-fashioned virtues. Danny frequently tells his youngest, ""Don't start thinking you're special. The trouble begins when you start building a wall around you.'' If Michelle needs further humbling, her brother and sister can remind her that she flunked her driver's test the first time after botching a three-point turn.

For the next year through Nagano, it's the triple jumps that will preoccupy Michelle. Carroll and Michelle's choreographer, Lori Nichols, have already selected the music for her Olympic program. They won't reveal any more, only that their concept will be a radical departure from Kwan's femme fatale era. And Michelle can already imagine that unbeatable feeling. ""Sometimes you step on the ice and it's just awesome,'' she says. ""It's like you were born in skates.'' A skater born, a champion made.