When Michelle Kwan glided onto the ice last September for a pro-amateur competition in South Carolina, something unexpected happened—or, rather, the expected didn't. Instead of the thunderous applause that usually greets her name, there was an awkward, puzzling silence. "I don't think people recognized me," says Kwan, 18, amused by the memory. "It was like they were still waiting for me to come out."

The confusion was understandable. The Michelle Kwan who takes to the ice these days—-and who is America's best hope for gold at this month's World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki—bears-little resemblance to the pony tailed adolescent whose lifelong dream of Olympic gold was dashed in Nagano last year by Tara Lipinski. Sporting a new, Sharon Stone-inspired pixie cut, Kwan also displays poise to match. "Your first vision of Michelle is that she's now a woman," says Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist. "Her skill comes from passion—and passion is an adult emotion."

The new Michelle rose from the ashes of her Olympic defeat. Just seconds after Lipinski, then 15, edged her out of the gold, Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, rushed to her side. He found his protégée surrounded by friends and family, many trying to console her by blaming the loss on bad judging. "They meant well," says Carroll, "but somebody had to tell her the truth." Finally, in the men's locker room, the only quiet spot he could find, Carroll sat Kwan down. "You were wonderful," he said, "but it was not your greatest performance. It wasn't exciting."

Determined to take responsibility, Kwan roared back. She won the Worlds two months later, her triumph tarnished only by Lipinski's absence. And, gradually, she was able to put her Olympics into perspective. "A couple hours of your life is not everything," Kwan says. "You shouldn't let it determine whether you'll have success and happiness."

Last August, Kwan tried a move she had never" attempted in the 13 years she had been skating—she stopped training for a month. "We took our first family vacation," says Kwan, who lives in a soaring A-frame next door to her parents, Danny and Estella, in Lake Arrow—head, Calif. (Brother Ron, 23, is a senior at the University of California, Irvine, and sister Karen, 20, is a junior at Boston University.) During the family's two weeks in Hawaii, Kwan scuba dived, went snorkeling—and returned home determined to get a new look. "When she cut her hair," says Danny Kwan, a retired Pacific Bell manager, "that was a signal she was growing up. I've got to accept that she won't be around forever."

He and his wife, who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the mid-'70s and once sold their house to pay for skating lessons, will have to get used to the idea soon. Michelle is waiting to hear from her college choices—and far-off Harvard is among those at the top of the list. "For me it has always been skate, skate, skate," says Kwan, who will perform through the summer on the John Hancock Champions on Ice tour. "I want something where I can meet new people, do something different."

And, just maybe, one of those people might be a boyfriend. Kwan says she's looking for "someone who's very driven, ambitious and nice." He would probably also have to understand that no matter how much Michelle Kwan has changed, she still has her eyes on the Olympics, which roll around again in 2002 in Salt Lake City. "It's not that far off," says Kwan. "I plan on being there."

Mike Neill
Lorenzo Benet in Lake Arrowhead

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.