The feeling has never changed for Michelle Kwan, that mixture of anticipation and anxiety that causes her heart and stomach to flutter when her name is announced and the ice gleams before her, a canvas awaiting her brush strokes.
"It's strange, because after a while, you think the excitement is going to be gone," she said. "But every time I step onto the ice, I get that nervous feeling, that intensity. I wish it were easier. There's something that keeps me going. It keeps me running. I wish I could figure it out and put it into other aspects of my life."
With so many pleasant alternatives, including a lucrative contract to promote Disney theme parks and lend her voice and likeness to animated features, she doesn't have to live with jangled nerves and a jampacked schedule that keeps her apart from her boyfriend, Florida Panther defenseman Brad Ference. She could also resume her education at UCLA, or perform full-time in a show.
But Kwan skates on in the Olympic-eligible ranks, not knowing exactly what she's looking for or when she'll find it, if ever. Perhaps she already has it: the knowledge that she has advanced the sport, if not with pure power then with artistry that captivates audiences like no one since the luminous Janet Lynn more than three decades ago.
"Her speed, power and skill are at a level as high as anyone's," said Scott Williams, a former national-level skater with whom she began working last summer. "Someone might have more tricks, but if everyone skates to their ability, she has as good a chance as anybody to stand above the rest."
Kwan, 22, will compete this week in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for the 11th time at the senior level and 12th overall. She has finished first or second at every senior national competition except her first, in 1993, when she was 12. She's pursuing her seventh women's singles title, a number surpassed only by the nine championships won by Maribel Vinson in the 1920s and '30s.
"For me, it doesn't seem like 12 nationals. It's pretty crazy," said Kwan, who was born in Torrance, lives in Manhattan Beach and trains in the Los Angeles area. "There's a few little kids at the rink where I skate and the other day they asked me, 'How many nationals have you gone to?' When I told them, they said, 'That many? Oh, I wasn't born then.' "
Someday, they will learn she was favored to win the 1998 Olympics but finished an agonizingly close second to a 15-year-old dynamo named Tara Lipinski. They will also learn that Kwan, who ended a long collaboration with Coach Frank Carroll 3 1/2 months before the Salt Lake City Games, went to her second Olympics as the favorite again only to fall in her long program and finish third behind Sarah Hughes and Irina Slutskaya. Another twirl on the world stage, another heartbreak.
Yet, she has no regrets about going solo before the Games, a decision some observers believe might have cost her the one prize her resume lacks.
"At that time, I needed something like that. It was the best thing I could have done," said Kwan, who has won more medals at the World Championships -- four gold, three silver -- than any other U.S. skater. "If I were to do it again, I would do the same thing because I needed something different.
"Nothing seemed to be clicking in place. It wasn't anything dramatic or any one thing, but I felt I had to do it."
She and Williams have an open-ended agreement.
"We're still learning more about each other on the ice, like how I practice and what's good for me," she said. "He's given me lots of pointers."
Williams said his job is mostly "fine-tuning, tweaking so many fine movements. Working on jumps is a never-ending thing.... She already does a lot of things, as far as training really well. It's good to have someone there to keep your efficiency high. It's not who works hardest, it's who works smartest."
As she did after Nagano, Kwan planned to sit out the Grand Prix season and assess her options. Invited to compete at Skate America after Hughes tore a leg muscle and withdrew, she agreed on short notice and won, despite a long program she summed as "icky." In this strange post-Olympic season, with Hughes out of the Grand Prix series and upsets occurring nearly every week, Kwan qualified for the Grand Prix final next month in St. Petersburg, Russia, on that one triumph.
However, she hasn't decided whether she will go. Keeping her options open seems to be a theme: Why rush and close off avenues she might later want to travel? She reenrolled at UCLA but ended up taking no classes, although she shows her school spirit by buying and wearing Bruin workout gear. She kept her Olympic eligibility because giving it up wouldn't have changed much, given the appearance fees and prize money she earns in events and tours approved by the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.
"I consider right now to be a good time in my career because I have a choice about what I want to do," she said. "Being a pro hasn't crossed my mind. I haven't thought about it at all. I'd probably be doing the same things, even if I turned pro."
Nor has she thought about whether this year's World Championships in Washington might be her last, she said. As for the 2006 Turin Games, don't even bring that up.
"I just can't seem to make a decision," she said. "2006 is a long way away. But who knows? Maybe I'll never have a professional career."
First, though, is the challenge she will face starting Thursday with the short program. Sasha Cohen, second at last year's nationals and fourth at the Olympics, has had a strong season that includes victories at Skate Canada and Trophee Lalique. Hughes missed the Grand Prix season but proved her mental and technical strength at Salt Lake City by reeling off two difficult triple-triple combination jumps and rallying from fourth to finish first.
Kwan said she isn't planning any triple-triples in her own programs. She has practiced a triple lutz-hop-triple toe combination but isn't sure enough of it to bring it out this week.
Asked if Kwan could win without a triple-triple, Williams quickly responded affirmatively.
"What she brings is such a well balanced program and well balanced skating," he said.
That Hughes will be the first female U.S. gold medalist to compete in the U.S. Championships the year after winning at the Olympics is "kind of cool," Kwan said. "It seems every year people that compete in the Olympics aren't back. I think it's going to be an exciting nationals."