WITHIN HER REACHINDEPENDENT KWAN KEEPS COOL AMID ALL THE ADULATION, ATTENTION

SALT LAKE CITY — One more night like this, and skaters will be dumping their coaches left and right.

Michelle Kwan, with no coach and only her father in her corner, skated the first half of the most watched event of the Winter Olympics Tuesday night. And though she didn’t quite hang the moon, she hung the next best thing, a complete string of 5.9 artistic marks to grab first place in the short program of ladies’ figure skating.

“It felt great to see those 5.9s,” Kwan said in the tunnel after her performance, which was perhaps the most anticipated of these 2002 Games. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many of them. When I first skated out there, the crowd was so loud, yelling and screaming, I was like, ‘Wait! Wait! I haven’t skated yet.’ “

You can forgive the premature adulation. Kwan is, by far, the most celebrated and recognizable American face at these games — and that includes the NHL players on the USA hockey team. She has been the top female figure skater in this country for nearly a decade. This is her second time around as an Olympic favorite, with all the attendant features, magazine covers and TV profiles. She took the silver medal in 1998, when she was still a teenager and there remained a bit of mystery to her.

Now, with her Chevy commercials running throughout the Olympics, with her multi-million dollar endorsement deals, with her countless appearances on the major talk shows — and with an up-close-and-personal feature perfectly timed on NBC just before she skated Tuesday — it doesn’t seem like Michelle Kwan has come to win the gold medal as much as she’s come back to pick it up.

All Kwan, all the time

“I was flipping the channels on TV,” Kwan admitted after her short-program performance, which left her slightly ahead of Russia’s Irina Slutskaya, followed by two Americans, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes. “And up came something on me and figure skating. So I changed the channel — and there was another thing on me and figure skating.

“I was like, ‘Ahg! I can’t get away from me.’ “

Thankfully, most people don’t yet share that emotion — although only Kwan seems relaxed enough here to blow kisses to every crowd and wave at every camera and even give a judge’s mark the thumbs down on television.

But the most interesting thing about Kwan is not what she has, but what she now lacks.

A coach.

She dumped her longtime mentor Frank Carroll late last year. It stunned the skating world and puzzled Carroll and his supporters, who had been with Kwan from the start. “I learned an awful lot from Frank,” Kwan said, “but in the end, you’re always out there alone.”

Well, she is now. Kwan practices by herself, trains by herself and performs with only her father, a restaurant owner, in her corner. Either she is the youngest do-it-yourselfer in Olympic history or temporarily insane.

But Kwan felt she needed some kind of refreshing. She believes the figure skating world has demanded she reinvent herself, all but penalizing her for being around so long.

“Some people talk about me being over the hill,” Kwan said recently. “You’d think I was 35 years old.”

Actually, Michelle, some of us wish we were still on that particular hill.

But only in figure skating can you go through a midlife crisis just as you reach drinking age. Kwan not only dumped Carroll last year, she moved from glitzy Los Angeles, where she sometimes skated on the same ice as the Kings and partied with Kobe Bryant, and went back to sleepy Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where she grew up and nobody makes a fuss.

In a way, it was like one of those “Rocky” movies, where he trains for the big fight by getting back to his roots.

Then again, you always knew how those movies were going to end. This competition is still up for grabs.

“It’s like the gladiators out there,” Kwan said. “You keep going and see who survives.”

Sarah, Sasha lurk in the wings

The short program counts only a third of the total score in women’s figure skating. The thinking is, you can’t win a gold medal in the short program, but you can lose one.

If so, none of the favorites fell off the rainbow. Slutskaya, Kwan’s Russian rival, skated as advertised, which meant high jumps and amazing acrobatics, but lacked artistry. Not surprisingly, her technical marks were higher than Kwan’s, but her artistic marks were lower.

As for the other Americans? They hardly wilted. Sarah Hughes, all of 16, skated out seemingly oblivious to the roar of the crowd at the sound of her name. Then again, she’s already graced the cover of Time magazine. What could faze her? Her routine was an exercise in smoothness, landing all her jumps — albeit one awfully close to the boards — and generally skating like a music box dancer, with an almost innate grace.

And then there was Sasha Cohen. She may be 17, but she looks about 11, and watching her skate, with her childish expressions and elf-life body, seems like something you’d see in a home movie filmed by a proud daddy at a skating lesson.

Except Sasha is big time. Her jumps were nearly flawless, and her flexibility in spins and twirls was like watching a pipe cleaner bent into 50 magical positions.

She finished her program to a stunning burst of applause, and despite her relatively early position, even the judges could not deny her performance. They graded her with numbers often saved for later skaters — why that save-it-don’t-spend-it judging exists is one of those maddening things about figure skating that could take us all day to debate — and Sasha bounced into the tunnel with a cluster of 5.7s and 5.8s

So at the end of the night, it was Kwan first, Slutskaya second, Cohen third and Hughes fourth. If NBC was looking for an All-Star game in Thursday’s long program, their wish has been granted.

Meanwhile, Kwan, already rich, already famous, already decorated with everything possible except Olympic gold, was the model of calm. As she moved through the press throngs in the mixed zone area of the arena basement, the woman who once dreamt of “being the Michael Jordan of ice skating” was as smooth as the man she idolized.

“I really feel great,” she said. “When I skated off, I didn’t know what the judges would think, but I knew I did my job. So no worries. Nothing to get stressed out about.”

Right.

Unless you’re a coach.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

(SIDEBAR) THE ORDER OF THINGS

Ordinal results of the ladies figure skating short program :

RK……SKATER……………………..COUNTRY……….1……..2……..3…….4…….5……..6…..7………8………9 1. …….MichelleKwan……………..USA…………………1……..2……..1…….1…….1……..2…..2………2………1 2………IrinaSlutskaya……………..Russia………………3……..1……..2…….2…….3……..1…..1………1………3 3………SashaCohen……………….USA…………………2……..4……..3…….4…….2……..4…..3………3………2 4………SarahHughes……………..USA………………….6……10……..4…….5…….5……..5…..5………4………4 5………MariaButyrskaya………….Russia………………8……..3………6…….3……6……..3…..4………6………6

Key to the Judges: 1. Germany. 2. Russia. 3. Slovakia. 4. Denmark. 5. Italy. 6. Belarus. 7. Finland. 8. Canada. 9. United States.

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