SALT LAKE CITY -- She once said she dreamed of becoming "the Michael Jordan of my sport.''
Tonight, Michelle Kwan begins the process she hopes will produce a Jordanesque final winning shot.
"To the public, the Olympics are the supreme of the supreme,'' the four-time world ladies figure skating champion has said. "I don't truly believe you can be a legend without winning it.''
Kwan's bid to become a legend begins with the short program. And while that counts for only one-third of a skater's total score, the world will be watching Kwan intensely during Part One of what likely will be her Grand Finale in Olympics skating. Part Two, the all-important long program, is Thursday night.
The only people who might be more closely watched than Kwan will be the judges of the International Skating Union, which spent Monday talking about restoring credibility by reforming the subjective way in which its winners are decided.
If Kwan lives her dream, their decision will be easy.
She received the best possible draw for tonight's short program. As the 15th and final skater to perform, she could prevent the embattled judging panel from playing their coveted 6.0 cards too early in the competition.
Kwan, after all, has received more perfect scores from international judges than any figure skater in history. But this time those same judges will want to see whether Kwan -- a skater always capable of technical perfection -- has the artistic fire and passion necessary for the Olympic gold.
That sense of reserve -- which some would call competitive coolness -- might well have cost Kwan a gold medal four years ago in Nagano.
Leading American teammate Tara Lipinski after the short program, Kwan skated what even she called a reserved routine in the long program. And though she scheduled seven triple jumps and received 5.9s across the board for artistic impression, she left open a door Lipinski stormed through for the gold.
"I think I was too cautious,'' she said in looking back on that night. "I didn't open myself up and really let go.''
Questions about Kwan's ability to let herself go -- to light the fire within, as the motto of these Salt Lake Games command -- continue to linger, especially after she seemed to be setting herself up for a possible fall before the Opening Ceremonies.
"There's more to life than just winning medals,'' the 21-year-old six-time American champ told a swarming press gathering. "At this moment, it's the greatest thing in the whole world, but you have to move on.
"Will it complete me as a person (to win an Olympic gold medal)? I wish I could say that winning so many medals would do that; I'd be the happiest person on earth. But yet, how come the richest, the most famous people aren't always the happiest people on earth?''
Even though she understands its importance to the public, Kwan continues to insist that the quest for Olympic gold wasn't all that made her retain her "amateur status" -- as if any celebrity making more than $2 million a year in endorsement fees can be called an amateur -- and pursue another Olympic shot.
"I can't justify training for four years just for that six minutes on the ice,'' she said upon arriving in Salt Lake City. "There have got to be more things I enjoy out of skating, and for me it is the process of there.''
And now she is there, and the wolves are at the door.
Though favored to win the gold after Thursday night's long program, Kwan is far from a prohibiitive favorite. Russia's Irina Slutskaya has beaten Kwan in three head-to-head meetings this year, but lost some momentum when she finished second to teammate Maria Butyrskaya in the European Championships.
Slutskaya and Butyrskaya will skate tonight in the same final pairing with Kwan. American teammates Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen didn't fare as well. Hughes will skate late in the first grouping, and Cohen will skate first after the second group warms up.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.