It was thanks to Michelle Kwan that I first heard late Eva Cassidy’s incomparable voice. Most of us are probably familiar with Michelle’s Olympic history. At her first Olympics at Nagano, she skated well but showed just enough nerves for jumping bean extraordinnaire Tara Lipinski to leap and loop-loop her way to the gold medal. Four years later, Michelle came to Salt Lake City after just having parted ways with long-time coach Frank Carroll, as well as her choreographer. Perhaps predictably, she seemed to lack her usual focus, and after a fall on the triple flip, she was left with the bronze medal. A silver and a bronze are excellent results, but with the amazing standard Michelle had set with her previous performances, she and her fans couldn’t help but be at least a little heartbroken.
I was working in Seoul at the time at an English hagwon (privately run after-school institute), and it was early afternoon in Korean time as Michelle set out to start skating her long program. The Western teachers all gathered around the TV in the hagwon lobby, while the Korean staff seemed bemused at how emotionally involved we all were (skating was not on most Koreans’ radar before Yu-Na Kim rose to prominence). When Michelle double-footed a triple toe loop early on, we all assured each other with comments like, “It’s okay” and “She can still do it.” But when she fell, we all groaned in unison, startling the students who were just starting to arrive for classes. We knew the gold was gone (to Sarah Hughes who seemed as shocked as everyone else that she won).
But Michelle still had a golden moment left in store at that Olympics. At the gala exhibition, she performed to Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold,” and she skated the most emotional performance I have ever seen. She (and I) finished the program in tears, and I still get goosebumps thinking of how moving that moment was. Soon after, I sought out more of Eva Cassidy’s work, and boy, am I glad that I did. Eva’s voice would bring tears from a statue, both heavenly and earthly, at once transcendent and vulnerable. “Autumn Leaves” is especially powerful for me, with the poetry of the lyrics given raw power from the pain evident in Eva’s voice. When she sings, “And I miss you most of all, oh my darling, when autumn leaves begin to fall,” she inspires you and breaks your heart at the same time. It’s just what Michelle did with her last performance in Salt Lake, which was golden as they come.