Flashing a toothy smile that seems as irrepressible as her desire to become an Olympian, Michelle Kwan nailed six triple jumps and landed in the history books at the U.S. Olympic Festival on Sunday.
Kwan, 13, became the youngest figure skater in festival history to win the ladies' singles gold medal.
She held the lead going into the day's free-skating portion of the seven-woman competition, in which she was the final performer. Every skater fell at some point during their programs before Kwan took the ice.
Then, in one of the most mature and difficult performances of the competition, Kwan completed six triple jumps, including a triple lutz, to bring the crowd of 25,691 in the Alamodome to its feet.
The crowd was the largest for a single session in festival history, surpassing the crowd at the 1987 festival's gold-medal basketball game by 4,805. It is thought it to be the largest crowd ever to attend a competitive figure skating event in the United States.
Although attendance records from the early years of figure skating competitions in the United States are not available, only about 14,000 watched the U.S. Championships in January.
Kwan said that the size of the crowd in the Alamodome did not make her nervous.
"If I'm sad or if I'm happy, I still have to do my program," she said.
Kwan's victory proved that her sixth-place finish at the U.S. Championships was not a fluke. It also solidified her position as a potential qualifier for the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway.
The competition at the festival, which included only four of the nation's top-12 skaters, was much less difficult than at the U.S. Championships. Kwan earned unanimous first-place votes in both programs; Jenna Pittman of Cary, N.C., finished in second place and Teresa Aiello of Stamford, Conn., was third.
Kwan, the youngest skater in the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.'s senior division, took her career into her own hands by sneaking behind her coach's back to become a USFSA senior when she was 12.
Frank Carroll, Kwan's coach at the Ice Castle Training Center at Lake Arrowhead, had gone out of town for a convention. Kwan took the necessary free-skating test while he was away.
The way her father, Dan, describes the incident, it was a "miscommunication." Dan said that he thought Michelle asked Carroll's permission to take the test while Michelle thought Dan would ask him on her behalf.
Neither asked Carroll.
"I was supposed to stay in juniors," Kwan says with a smile. "But I had a little urge to go into seniors."
When Carroll returned and found out that Kwan was a senior, he was furious. She no longer could compete in junior competitions in the United States, although she is still eligible for junior competitions at the international level.
But now, Carroll, too, smiles about the incident.
"It shows a little bit that she has a strength inside," Carroll said.
That inner strength does not show, yet, on the outside. She looks scrawny standing next to the other senior skaters, even though she works equally hard.
Kwan lives with her sister Karen, 14, in a cabin near the training center at Arrowhead. Both have received scholarships to the center, where they train up to 6 1/2 hours per day. Michelle takes independent studies classes at the Mary P. Henck intermediate school.
Because Michelle and Karen are so young, Dan drives nearly two hours from Gardena to Arrowhead every night to stay with them after working all day as a manager at Pacific Bell.
He watches Michelle and Karen for a few minutes during their early morning practice before he leaves again to go back to work.
Kwan's mother, Estella, lives with Kwan's brother, Ron, in Torrance, where Estella runs their family-owned Chinese restaurant.
Estella, from Hong Kong, and Dan, from Canton, China, say skating helps the girls learn discipline and the art of losing gracefully.
"It's really not her career in skating that's valuable," Dan said, "It's something I want them to learn, to become more disciplined. Also, to learn how to take defeat.
"It's easy for (someone) to stand on the podium after you are No. 1, but what happens someday is that you are not, and you have to learn to take that kind of (defeat)."