FIGURE skating, as events of the recent past have illustrated, can be a hard-edged sport. In many ways, a 14-year-old like Michelle Kwan seems out of place in this athletic arena - too apple-cheeked and unaffected, certainly, to shoulder the burdens of star status.
Nonetheless, circumstances and talent have thrust the California teenager into the role of ice-queen-in-waiting, and she and her family seem ready to handle it.
``They're not chasing the dollar,'' says Shep Goldberg, Michelle's agent. ``Her parents are not pushing Michelle to fill some impossible dreams they have. They've instilled in her that the main thing in life is to be a good person, not a good skater. They've told her many times that if she's not having fun, then stop skating.''
Last year, she was the much-publicized alternate on the United States Olympic team, the backup for either Nancy Kerrigan or Tonya Harding if either had been unable to report in to Lillehammer, Norway. The media frenzy sparked by the Kerrigan-Harding story extended to Kwan, whose family called in Goldberg, a former Los Angeles Lakers publicist, to supervise and control the media that descended on Michelle.
Last month she entered the national championships in Providence, R.I., with many people expecting her to bump Peggy Fleming aside as the youngest American champion ever (Fleming was 15 when she won in 1964).
Michelle, however, faltered a bit and placed second, while the more seasoned Nicole Bobek overcame her past inconsistencies and secured the women's crown. That title had been stripped from Harding the year before because of her involvement in events related to an attack on Kerrigan.
As the women's singles competition commences today at the world figure skating championships in Birmingham, England, Kwan is a dark horse. The favorites are France's Surya Bonaly, China's Lu Chen Japan's Yuka Sato, the defending champion, has turned pro.
Skating with little pressure, Kwan could improve on her eighth-place finish of a year ago and gain in the pecking order that plays such an important part in the sport.
There was no sense of pressure, though, when Michelle was asked at the nationals competition to share her approach to skating. ``Just do what you want to do, work hard, and that's all you can hope for,'' she said.
Michelle began skating at age five after watching her brother, now a freshman at the the University of California, Irvine, play hockey. Sister Karen, who is two years older, joined Michelle in figure skating and turned in a very respectable seventh-place finish at last month's nationals.
The sisters reside in Arrowhead, Calif., in order to train at the Ice Castle, a noted figure-skating school. Their mother, Estella, lives with them. Their father, Danny, commutes a couple times a week (about a four-hour round trip) from Torrance, Calif. By staying in the Los Angeles area he's able to keep his job as a supervisor with Pacific Bell and to help run the family's Golden Pheasant Chinese restaurant.
Karen is a junior at Rim of the World High School, but Michelle dropped out of school two years ago to concentrate on her skating. She receives daily tutoring.
Although Michelle outperforms her sister on the ice, the siblings are very supportive of each other. ``We're really good friends,'' Karen says. ``I don't think we have any of that rivalry stuff.''
Asked what area she might be better in, Karen says, ``You're putting me on the spot.'' Then, after a long pause, she adds, ``I think artistry comes easier to me.''
Michelle's strength is athleticism, which enables her to do the many jumps required of today's top skaters.
To learn these jumps and have sufficient time to master them, coaches are priming skaters at an earlier age.
``To get that body in the air and make three turns, I'm afraid you've got to start them very young,'' says Frank Carroll, Michelle's coach. ``If you wait until they're 16 or 17, it's too late.''
Michelle may have become the poster child for this youth brigade. Hot on on her heels are even younger girls like Tara Lipinski, a 4 ft. 6 in., 69-lb. 12-year-old who wowed the crowds with her triple jumps when she skated in the junior nationals. ``Tara is a very well balanced kid; she plays with dolls,'' says Ron Ludington, one of her skating groomers.
Kwan, too, keeps one foot in adolescence. She has a favorite teddy bear knapsack and trick-or-treated as Fred Flintstone with Karen last Halloween.
It seems she understands that there's time to grow. ``Michelle is in this for the long term,'' Goldberg says. ``She sees herself potentially skating [competitively] for 10 years. In terms of her endorsements, we're looking at this as a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.''
Consequently, Goldberg says he turns down 75 to 80 percent of the requests that come Michelle's way, whether personal appearances, banquet invitations, or business deals. (There are no amateurs in figure skating anymore, only ``eligible'' and ``ineligible'' skaters.)
Clearly, the Olympic timetable is in Kwan's favor. She has three more years to train for the '98 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, and conceivably could stick around for a try at the 2002 Olympics as well.
She's already had a taste of the Olympics. Last February she was flown to Lillehammer and given a place to stay as well as ice time on a private rink. She had none of the access or privileges of a full-fledged Olympian, though, a situation that bothered Carroll but not his star pupil.
``I wouldn't say I was frustrated because I was just happy being there,'' Michelle says. ``It was an honor.''