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Ice still calls to Kwan

Michelle Kwan wasn't thinking about her legacy, how many medals she would win or the records she would break when she showed up for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships back in 1993.

Just 12 and still baby-faced, she was too in awe of her surroundings, giddy at the prospect of sharing the ice with skaters she had grown up watching.

More than a decade later, she still feels that sense of wonder. Only now it is her career that prompts it, a span as impressive for its duration as its success.

"I've never seen myself as a legacy. I want to skate for fun and the respect of the sport," said Kwan, who can tie Maribel Vinson Owen's long-standing record of nine U.S. titles with a win at this week's nationals in Portland, Ore.

"I feel a sense of cosmic connection because of Maribel Vinson Owen and Frank Carroll," she added, "so this is a very special year for me."

Owen is somewhat of a mentor by proxy for Kwan. She trained with Carroll for nine years, and Carroll often talked about Owen, his coach, the lessons she had taught him and the high standard she had set. That Kwan has had the staying power, and success, to match Vinson surprises even her sometimes.

The shy little girl has grown into a woman recognized worldwide. She has started and finished high school, and tried the college scene. The faces around her have changed _ Anyone know where Tara Lipinski is these days? _ and the sport has undergone a massive makeover with its new judging system that replaces the century-old 6.0 mark.

Yet Kwan keeps going.

"That's a hard question to answer for me," she said when asked to explain her longevity. "I always thought after 2002 I'd hang up my skates and turn professional, go on tour and do shows. I don't know when it is enough. I still enjoy it."

Some wonder if she would still be here, pushing herself, if she had won gold at the 1998 or 2002 Olympics. But she insists that isn't why she is doing this.

"If I really think about it, it's the competition atmosphere that I enjoy so much, the intensity. I love being nervous and pushing myself to the max," she said.

The 24-year-old remains the sport's gold standard when she is at her peak. She has won seven straight U.S. titles and eight overall, and is a heavy favorite to win again this year. Her closest competition, Sasha Cohen, missed most of the season with a back injury.

Kwan also is a five-time world champion and has medaled at every worlds since 1996.

She did slip a little last year, finishing third to end a nine-year streak of winning either gold or silver. And she doesn't have the jumps like the mighty mites, struggling with triple-triple combinations when other skaters are trying quadruple jumps or triple axels. That could hurt her in the new points-based scoring system, where difficult jumps have a higher point value than other technical elements, such as spins or spirals.

Kwan has never skated under the new system because she skipped the Grand Prix series the past two seasons.

Though she hasn't committed to the Turin Olympics, she sounds like someone who wants one more shot at gold. Maybe not so much for the medal anymore, but for the journey.

"That's not the only thing I'm in the sport for. It's the everyday process," she said. "I'm the luckiest girl alive. I get to perform in front of thousands of people, do what I love doing, skate to beautiful music in Vera Wang. The list goes on and on.

"It's going to be hard for me one day to just walk out of the ice rink and say, "I'm done.' "

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