In 1994, I watched the World Figure Skating Championships in Chiba (Makuhari), Japan with absolute fascination. After the Olympics, many of the skaters who had reinstated from the professional ranks to compete in Lillehammer had since opted to return to the professional ranks and still other amateur skaters had decided to turn professional. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Kurt Browning, Katarina Witt and many others simply weren't in Chiba, and it made for a compelling competition.
Without Nancy and Tonya, America's two representatives in the ladies competition in Lillehammer, things were wide open. Representing the U.S. were U.S. bronze medallist Nicole Bobek and silver medallist Michelle Kwan. After a rough performance, Nicole failed to advance from her qualifying group and all hopes were on Michelle, a dimunitive skater with an array of consistent triple jumps (up to the lutz) and a musical sensitivity beyond her years. Despite the potential and technical ability that Michelle showed, I simply wasn't buying it. Elaine Zayak, who had finished fourth at U.S. Nationals that year with a gorgeous performance, was in my opinion the skater that should have been competing in Chiba. I've always (and still am) not a fan of these young skaters who can jump but are still girls. It's called ladies, and if you're a kid, you should be in junior or novice even if you can jump like the seniors. I want maturity. I want skaters to have style, have flair and be there like The Nanny. I digress...
Two years later, a completely different Michelle Kwan showed up on the inaugural season of the Champions Series (now known as the Grand Prix). With programs to "Romanza/Fiesta Flamenca" and "Salome", she had completely rebranded herself with a new, more mature look with hair, costumes and make-up to match a more expressive, refined style brought out in both programs choreographed by Lori Nichol. The Michelle Kwan who we would grow to know and love was born.
In 1996, Michelle won her first of FIVE World Championships, NINE U.S. National titles and TWO Olympic medals. She was the first five time ladies champion since Carol Heiss Jenkins (1956-1960), is tied only with Maribel Vinson-Owen for the most U.S. ladies national titles. Her competitive record is absolutely glowing in general if you think about it - in her twelve consecutive trips to the World Championships, not once did she finish out of the top ten. That's pretty crazy in itself. One also can't overlook the fact that in her last 7 trips to Skate America, a prestigious Grand Prix event featuring top international competitors, she won EVERY TIME. She also won dozens of professional/pro-am competitions during her career, including the Equal World Pro Open, Masters Of Figure Skating Competition and U.S. Pro Challenge.
What makes Michelle so special really isn't just the name or the results. It's what she did on the ice. Her short programs, long programs, interpretive free skates for pro-am events and exhibition programs all had one thing very much in common: they were wholly and completely programs from start to finish. The music was expressed. Care was put into the characters and ideas being portrayed. Her "amateur" programs were good enough to be professional programs or the kind of works we'd see in an Ice Theatre. She made us forget she had to do a jump combination, a triple jump out of steps and a double axel. We were too busy enjoying what she was doing to remember that these were necessarily competitive programs.
She perservered through injury, coaching changes and Olympic disappointment with a healthy, admirable attitude, never gave up or lost her joy for the sport. You can't fake a true love for skating, and if you think you can, you're not the actress you think you are. There was something genuine and otherworldly about Michelle's skating. If you're not convinced, sit and watch programs like "Fields Of Gold", "Dante's Prayer", "Ariane", "Winter", "East Of Eden", "Concertio Di Aranjuez". In fact, I urge you to do just that today, on Michelle's birthday. Take five minutes, watch one of her performances and just take in how GOOD she was. Take in how good her programs were. You didn't see any wonky IJS step sequences - you saw skating at it's prettiest and best. You saw depth. Thank you Michelle Kwan, for your wonderful skating and wonderful smile.
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