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Saturday, April 1
Updated: October 6, 9:40 AM ET
The best way to finish for Kwan

By Kevin D. Miller
ABC Sports Online report

There was constant skepticism from the beginning for Michelle Kwan. Critics said she wasn't focused or skilled enough to keep pace with the changing competitive environment of figure skating. That criticism was laid to rest as Kwan won her third World Figure Skating Championship on Saturday, making her the first American woman to win three world titles since Peggy Fleming (1966-68).

As a freshman at UCLA, Kwan was challenged at the start to balance her studies with her love for skating. The season had its ups and downs, but for Kwan the way she started and the way she finished tells the best story.

Michelle Kwan
Kwan holds up her world championship gold medal. Russians Irina Slutskaya (l) and Maria Butryskaya won the silver and bronze, respectively.

As the ISU season began with Skate America, Kwan said she wasn't fully prepared for competition. She still won the Skate America gold.

"Going into this (Skate America), I was not 100 percent ready," said the 1998 Olympic silver medallist. "With each practice, I got a little better and settled down into the competition."

She made it two in a row with a win at Skate Canada, but she wasn't happy about it. She fell on a triple loop and doubled out on three other planned triple jumps.

"I had a lot of omissions in my program. I could have been a little tougher out there," reflected Kwan. "When I went into the triple-triple (jump combination), I thought I was going to do it so it kind of startled me when I didn't."

She found a way to win early, but as the season progressed, Kwan's performances on the ice seemed surmountable. Russia's Irina Slutskaya upset Kwan at the ISU Grand Prix Final, exposing Kwan's vulnerability on the world stage. Slutskaya performed a jump combination that never had been successfully completed by a woman and captured the ISU gold.

"I was impressed by Slutskaya's triple-triple combinations," admired Kwan. "I don't get to watch other skaters, but here I was able to and I thought she was incredible. I know how difficult it is to put in triple-triple combinations, especially in the long program. I know I have to push myself because the technical difficulty is getting stronger and higher."

The bar for Kwan to regain her world title had been raised. The world competitors knew it. The fans knew it. But most importantly, Kwan knew it.

Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan captured her third world title with a memorable performance.

Her next test to show her championship heart came in February at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and she barely passed. Kwan won her fourth national championship in a very unconvincing way. She skated without fire and with caution. While her tentative performance included a fall in the free skate, her main competition -- 15-year-old Sasha Cohen and 14-year-old Sarah Hughes -- also fell during their performances and didn't take advantage of the "golden" gift Kwan was giving to them.

Kwan prevailed. She earned the right to carry the national flag to the World Championships in Nice, France. In the face of rising negative commentary, Kwan took the ice for the free skate on Saturday in third place and skated the most memorable performance of her life. She needed no help from compassionate judges or inexperienced competition. She needed to only look to herself and her champion's heart.

She had a world stage to compete upon against the best skaters in the world. Slutskaya, the reigning European Champion, was considered the favorite. Maria Butryskaya of Russia, the reigning World Champion, led after the short program.

But Kwan seized the moment and would not release it. In the end both Slutskaya and Butryskaya fell short to Kwan's majesty. In the face of the adversity of school, increased competition, a shaky performance at nationals and a slow start at worlds, Michelle Kwan finished her season the same way she began it -- on top of the podium receiving the gold medal.

The best way to finish.

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