SALT LAKE CITY -- Michelle Kwan paced back and forth behind the curtains just outside the rink. Though her guiding principle has been to relax and enjoy each moment of these Games, the stress of competition finally pierced through.
Kwan was about to take the ice for her warm-up period, her short program only minutes away with two of her most tenacious rivals sharing this small room with her. Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya seemed equally worried, unable to stand still.
Kwan's father, Danny Kwan, pensively observed her as she and the Russians spun across the ice. He leaned up against the skater's entrance to the rink, his hands clasped, perfectly still except to tilt his head to track his daughter's movements.
To add to the anxiety, Kwan's teammates, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes were 1-2 in the standings, having already skated solid programs. Cohen was calmly graceful, her jumps fluid and natural, while Hughes also managed a clean program, though it lacked Cohen's elegance.
Clearly, the women were unveiling their best. This would not play out as it did with the men, when gold-medal favorite Evgeni Plushenko stole away most of the suspense by falling during the first jump of his short program.
After Butyrskaya's marks were announced, placing her in third, Slutskaya listened intently to final reminders from her coach. Her determined frown morphed into a stage smile as she glided toward the center of the ice. Her jumps were effortless and her spins were tornado-like, devastatingly fast and focused. She was rewarded with mostly 5.8's for her technical marks and a couple 5.9's for presentation. She now sat in first place, with Cohen and Hughes in second and third, respectively.
With one more skater to go before her, Kwan paced again just outside the door of the rink. Her dad held a bottle of water, but she took only a couple of swigs. While Julia Soldatova performed her perfunctory routine, Kwan fidgeted in a show of jerky puppetry as she swung her forearms to and from her torso. As the polite applause for the skater from Belarus started, Kwan eagerly skated onto the ice.
She circled the oval, floating across its glistening surface. Occasionally, she toyed with her skates, bending down to check her laces and flipping her feet up to scrape the ice off her blades. Then Kwan glided over to her father. When her name was announced, she grasped his hand tightly, and absorbed his final words of advice: Just go out there and have fun. As she let go of his hand, he said, "I love you."
The fans loved her, too. They made sure she heard their squeals of anticipation and support. Surely, she couldn't miss the blinding waves of flashbulbs, even though the announcer already had issued two warnings.
The opening strains of the finale to the Piano Concerto No. 3 Rachmaninoff filled the air, and Kwan fluttered into motion. Though Kwan's opening triple Lutz-double toe combo was soft and clean, her jumps didn't have the height of Cohen's or even Hughes'. When the music sped up so she could show off her footwork, Kwan didn't keep up with the rhythm, and her steps were muddy and unarticulated. And her trademark intricate spins weren't as crisp and dizzying as Slutskaya's.
But Kwan wove a spell of mystery and emotion, as she always does. And after she skated smoothly out of her final jump, a triple flip, Kwan burst into that joyful smile of hers.
When the music stopped, and Kwan held her final pose, the arena erupted. Pumping her fists in the air, she exclaimed, "Go USA!" Cellophane-wrapped flowers fell from the rafters, the love-to-petals ratio decidedly in Kwan's favor. She genuflected for the fans, and then made for the Kiss-and-Cry area. There, she beckoned to her father, who took a seat to her left. She hugged him. As they spoke, she made a violent motion with her left arm, as if to say she had stone-cold killed it.
But Kwan gave a thumbs-down and frowned slightly when her technical marks came up low, accurately so, with 5.6's and 5.7's. The sweep of 5.9's for presentation, however, lit up her face again. Though the judges had given her the message that there was still room for improvement, she clapped softly.
Some wags grumbled that Cohen's artistry had rivaled Kwan's, but Kwan's reputation won out. There had been a somewhat predictable feel to Kwan's routine, especially when Cohen's seemed so purely wondrous.
Perhaps it was telling that Kwan later said, "I was like, 'I'm Michelle Kwan. I've done this a million times.' It was just like another practice."
Later, Kwan was her new animated self, playing to the media in the mixed zone. She laughed at the ridiculous notion of getting married in her purple and gold-flecked Vera Wang costume, and giggled at her own breathless anecdotes. She was very clearly at ease.
"The patriotism is incredible," she said. "The audience was on fire. And I heard that all the Americans did well, so you must be proud," Kwan said to the American media as she beamed and seemed genuinely thrilled that her teen-age teammates were wowing the judges.
"I feel America behind me."
Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.