SALT LAKE CITY -- If not for the big Olympic rings in the middle of the rink, this could have been any old practice for Michelle Kwan.
There were no fans to 'ooh' and 'aah' over her, no other skaters to crowd her space. It was just Kwan and the ice.
A bright smile crossed her face as she practically sprinted onto the surface Sunday afternoon, relaxed and ready to try to win the gold medal that eluded her in Nagano.
"It doesn't feel so much like 'The Olympics! The Olympics!"' she said. "You're able to train and practice. It's very low-key."
That Kwan's able to do anything low-key these days is stunning, considering she's one of the biggest stars in Salt Lake City.
The six-time U.S. champion consistently ranks among the world's most popular athletes, and she's favored to win the gold medal with an adoring home crowd cheering every jump and spiral.
That pressure would be enough to cause a mental meltdown in most skaters, and Kwan considered flying back to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., after the opening ceremony so she could train in peace. But just as Tara Lipinski discovered four years ago in Nagano, there's something settling about taking in the whole Olympic experience.
Because the women's competition doesn't start for another nine days, the other four women in her practice group weren't at the rink. Fellow Americans Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes left after the opening ceremony, and the two Japanese skaters won't arrive for a few more days.
And unlike the U.S. or world championships, where fans crowd the practice sessions, the Olympic rinks are secure areas, open only to athletes, coaches, media and staff.
The closest thing to a fan was the police officer who stopped her patrol of the stands long enough to snap a quick photo - or the volunteers who lined up for autographs after practice.
Even skaters in the subsequent practice group were scarce. Russian rival Maria Butyrskaya stopped to watch as Kwan starts running through her short program, but soon turned away to resume her warm-ups and stretches.
Kwan chatted occasionally with her father, Danny, who stood at the sideboards for moral support. For the most part, though, she just skated.
She ran through her program when her music played, and continued working when the stereo system switched to favorites from the 1980s and a Michael Jackson medley.
Kind of satisfying, considering that's the music Kwan would choose if she were in charge of the stereo.
"Ice is ice, I guess," she said. "It's nice to get used to the rink size. I'm glad I came and stayed because of that."
As strange as Kwan's Olympic solitude is, it's appropriate in a way. Since she split with longtime coach Frank Carroll last October, she's been on her own, shouldering the burdens and responsibilities of chasing gold by herself.
Oh, sure, her dad is standing close by at practices and mom Estella was in the waiting area Sunday like any other skating parent killing time until her child was ready. She also has plenty of friends and family to lean on for support.
But when Kwan takes the ice, it's up to her and her alone.
"It's never heard of, being coachless at the Olympics," Kwan admitted. "I have my dad, who's not my coach. He's said he's my cheerleader - he's just wondering where his pom-pons are.
"It's been going well," she said, turning serious again. "The main thing is to believe in myself and take control on the ice."
For now, it's all hers.
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