What a difference a year makes. In March 2002 Michelle Kwan was licking her wounds after a season of disappointment, pondering a professional career as Olympic champion Sarah Hughes basked in a golden glow. But last weekend in Washington, D.C., the 22-year-old Kwan completed a year of stunning rebirth by winning her fifth world title. It was the third time she had reclaimed the crown, making her the Muhammad Ah of her sport. Only at this stage of her career Kwan isn't rope-a-doping the judges and fans; with her passion rekindled, she's still floating like a butterfly and winging across the ice like a bee.
Hughes? The 17-year-old high school senior had a disastrous qualifying round on March 26 and played catch-up all weekend, eventually finishing sixth. Now she must decide which Ivy League college to attend—she's been accepted at Harvard and hears from Columbia, Princeton and Yale this month—and how to juggle her skating career with her academics. "It's not easy being Olympic champion," she said, looking a trifle shell-shocked. "I'm glad [the year] is over."
Kwan, who has won Olympic silver and bronze, would love to discover the burdens of Olympic gold. Few expected her to continue to compete after her third-place finish in Salt Lake City, and last season Kwan appeared burned out Over the summer she mulled her career options, and last September she called Scott Williams, 37, a former skater who had stayed involved in the sport. Kwan asked Williams to coach her. "I knew after the [post-Olympic] tour that I needed help," says Kwan, who following her split with longtime mentor Frank Carroll in 2001 had tried to skate with only her father as coach and adviser. "Scott has an aura that's relaxing and calming."
Williams, driving in his car when Kwan called, had to pull over to keep from careering off the road. While he did some coaching, he considered himself more of an ice-show producer. But the prospect of guiding Kwan, arguably the greatest female skater since Sonja Henie (10 world titles between 1927 and '36), was irresistible.
Insightful and laid-back, Williams has succeeded in getting Kwan to enjoy her skating again. She still doesn't have a triple-triple combination, as most of her rivals do. What she has done is subtract the weight of the world from her shoulders. In Washington last Saturday it was not Kwan's six triple jumps or even her elegant signature spiral that drew the 16,116 fans at the MCI Center to their feet. It was her straight-line footwork, an exquisite, Astaire-like dance of exuberance that was more like a scene of great theater than sport. The cheering audience drowned out the final 30 seconds of her music as she shimmered across the ice. "I've never felt such energy from myself," said Kwan, who won the U.S. championship in January. "It tells me I should put less pressure on myself and just go out and have fun. That's how it should have been last year."
While Kwan stopped short of promising to compete at the Turin Olympics in 2006, she sounded ready for the journey: "Why stop doing what you love doing?"