By Alex Tresniowski
February 23, 1998 12:00 PM

THIS WAS MICHELLE KWAN’S MOMENT OF TRUTH, the chance of a lifetime, the evening when her dreams would come true—and she would get to meet Leonardo DiCaprio. There was Kwan, 17, at the Los Angeles premiere of Titanic last Dec. 14, and there across the room was DiCaprio, the heartthrob whose picture she kept in a school workbook. Wearing her little black dress, camera in hand, she managed to get herself introduced. She even had her picture taken with him. Then, heartbreak. Kwan realized DiCaprio had no idea who she was. Not a clue. “Wasn’t I silly?” she asked her friend, figure skater Brian Boitano. “Don’t worry, Michelle,” said Boitano. “He’ll recognize you in another two months.”

He and maybe a billion other people, if Kwan can win the prize she longs for even more (yes, it’s true) than a date with DiCaprio: a figure-skating gold medal at the Nagano Olympics. In peak form and the favorite going in, Kwan will have some stiff competition, mainly from her own U.S. teammates—Tara Lipinski, 15, and Nicole Bobek, 20, two bundles of talent who round out one of America’s most impressive women’s figure-skating teams ever. “They’re all great competitors,” says Boitano, the 1988 men’s gold medalist. “I think we have a good chance to go one, two, three.”

Teammates though they may be, the three couldn’t be more different in style and temperament. Michelle is the driven careerist given to grueling practices and intense workouts; Tara is the pint-size prodigy still enamored of Beanie Babies; and Nicole is the enigma whose 1994 brush with the law failed to squelch the rebel within.

Still, whatever their differences, America’s would-be golden girls share one essential attribute: toughness. Each tasted early success, and each has been confronted—especially in the past year—by crises that have tested her will. Yet all three rose to the occasion precisely when it mattered most: at the 1998 U.S. championships in Philadelphia in January, where Kwan, Lipinski and Bobek finished first, second and third and earned their tickets to Nagano.

Of the three, Kwan was certainly the most spectacular. In fact the purity and expressiveness of her performance moved several of the judges to tears. She had arrived in Philadelphia with a stress fracture in her left foot, a training injury that prevented her from practicing at full tilt. Prior to skating she sat with her coach, Frank Carroll, comparing hands to see whose were shaking the most. But the trembling stopped when she hit the ice, and Kwan sparkled in her short and long programs, earning a perfect 6.0 in 15 of the judges’ 18 scores—the most sixes ever by an American skater. “In my mind, I was flying so high,” Kwan said after her victory. “I was really enjoying myself, really having fun.”

That was not always the case with Kwan, whose Hong Kong-raised parents, Dan, 49, a retired systems analyst, and Estella, 47, a former nurse, sold their Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., home to pay for training for Michelle and her sister Karen, now 19 and a sophomore at Boston University. Kwan, who started skating at age 5, proved a quick study and made the 1994 U.S. Olympic squad as an alternate, though she didn’t get to skate.

She went on to win the 1996 world and national championships, but the very next year her reign as skating’s queen was at an end. Kwan blossomed from 4’11” and 88 lbs. in 1994 to a more womanly 5’2″ and 105 lbs. The additional weight made it “harder to jump than when I was 13 and had cat’s feet,” she said last year. Her confidence shaken, Kwan fell twice at the 1997 nationals and was replaced as champion by Tara Lipinski.

For Kwan, it was time to retrench. “When something goes wrong, you search your soul,” says Boitano. “Michelle found out why she was skating—because she loves it.” Kwan also came to terms with the changes wrought by Mother Nature. “Last year she was insecure about herself,” says Carroll. “Now she’s in charge of her body.” Yet Kwan hasn’t let herself get too excited about being back on top. “Michelle isn’t one to think she’s 6.0 perfect,” says sister Karen, noting that their parents were there to “put her in her spot. They weren’t walking around saying, ‘Wow, you’re No. 1.’ ”

Indeed, Kwan’s parents, who live with Michelle not far from her Lake Arrowhead training complex near Los Angeles, are “very protective,” says her friend Kyoko Ina, the pairs skater. They escort her to and from the rink, where she usually practices three hours a day. And “if she wants to go on a date,” says Ina, “her mom and dad have to go with her.” Since the nationals, of course, Kwan has hardly had time to date: She has been undergoing physical therapy on her foot and making up missed schoolwork. “I’m taking French, English, history and computers,” says Kwan, who since 1992 has studied an average of four hours a day with a private tutor.

To relax, she watches movies and home videos (anything with Leonardo or Brad Pitt will do), hangs out with friends at the local Belgian Waffle Works and, once in a while, lets her hair down—or puts it up. For a recent practice, Kwan, who normally trains in a plain black unitard and no cosmetics, showed up in full makeup and diamond earrings with her hair pulled back in an elegant bun. “She looked like a princess,” says Frank Carroll, who asked if she had a TV appearance. “No,” said Kwan. “I just felt like fooling around and playing.”

When it comes to frolicking, though, it’s Tara Lipinski who takes the gold. Just shy of 4’11” and all of 82 lbs., Lipinski likes to go to malls and goof on waitresses. “We have a blast,” says her best friend, Erin Elbe, 16, who cracks up her pal by walking into walls. Lipinski also collects the Beanie Babies fans hurl on the ice after she skates (“I have too many to count,” she says). “She still likes to swing on swings,” says her choreographer, Sandra Bezic. “It’s great that she isn’t trying to be older than she is.”

But while Lipinski may be childish at times, a fierce competitive fire burns within. “She’s a force beyond your average 15-year-old,” says Bezic. As defending champion, Lipinski missed a triple flip during her short program at this year’s nationals, but rather than fall apart, she rose to the challenge and rallied to finish a strong second to Kwan. She has also had to deal with a critical backlash against her meteoric rise, with some in the skating world sniping at her less than elegant style. (One waspish writer called her a “robotic shrimp.”) Suddenly, Lipinski was no longer skating’s darling, but friends are confident she won’t let it bother her. “Tara likes being the underdog,” says fellow Olympian Todd Eldredge, the reigning U.S. men’s champion. “She wants to show everyone that she’s in top form.”

Lipinski has long since proved she’s a fighter. An only child who was 6 years old when she started skating at a rink near her Sewell, N.J., home, she would get up at 3 a.m. to practice before school. In 1995, Lipinski and her mother, Pat, 46, a former Wall Street secretary, moved to Bloomfield, Mich., so Tara could train with her current coach, Richard Callaghan; her father, Jack, 46, an oil refinery executive, stayed behind in the Houston home where the family had relocated in 1991. Hundreds of dollars in phone bills later, those sacrifices paid off when Lipinski, a phenomenal jumper, finished third at the ’96 nationals.

One year later she beat a shaky Kwan to take the championship, then captured the ’97 world title in Switzerland—becoming, at 14, the youngest skater ever to do so. Still, Lipinski’s artistry needed to catch up to her technical prowess. “She’s working on it,” says Bezic. “It’s something that comes not just from training but from life experience.”

Squeezed in around three-hour practices at the Detroit Skating Club—and four hours of daily tutoring—are the trappings of a normal teenage existence: shopping, gabbing on the phone, going to movies (Titanic and Scream 2 were favorites). “She’s always bugging her mom and dad, ‘Can I drive?’ ” says Elbe. “She’s waiting until after the Olympics so she can get her permit.” Off the ice, says Lipinski, “I’m just like other 15-year-olds. Everybody needs to decompress.”

Which explains her frequent trips to Disney World, where she and Elbe spent nine fun-filled days last summer. Yet even Mickey and Goofy couldn’t keep her mind off skating. Before one visit, Lipinski insisted on fitting in a half-hour practice session. “But when we got to the rink, it took, like, 2 hours,” says Elbe. “Disney World is her favorite place, and she didn’t care about it until she was satisfied with her skating. She just loves it so much.”

That kind of dedication hasn’t been Nicole Bobek’s hallmark—at least until now. Hugely talented but known for work habits that were, shall we say, erratic, Bobek blocked out years of unfulfilled promise and, as she had done only occasionally in the past, skated up to her potential at the ’98 nationals, drawing standing ovations. Afterward, Bobek rang up her friend and fellow skater Rudy Galindo. “I made the team,” she told him. “People were discounting me, and I made it.”

It was a bittersweet victory for Bobek, whose beloved coach Carlo Fassi died last year of a heart attack. In fact, she observed after the nationals, “My whole life has been an emotional roller coaster.” Born in Chicago, she never knew her father, who left shortly after Nicole was born, and was raised by her Czech-born mother, Jana, 50, and Jana’s friend Joyce Barron, 53. Bobek’s growth as a skater was hindered by discipline problems: She ran away from home at 16 and hired eight coaches in as many years.

In 1994 Bobek was arrested for illegally entering the Michigan home of a fellow skater and sentenced to two years’ probation (the charge was later dropped on a technicality). Yet only a few months after the break-in, Bobek skated well enough to win the 1995 nationals. (“Nicole is so talented she could show up not ready to compete and her talent would carry her through,” explains Tonia Kwiatkowski, who finished fourth behind Bobek at this year’s nationals.) In 1996, Bobek reunited with Fassi, her favorite coach and a father figure, and appeared ready to turn a corner. But midway through last year’s world championships, Fassi died. “She had to grow up fast because of the loss,” says Fassi’s widow, Christa, who now coaches Bobek. “She has matured very much this past year.”

Her friend John Baldwin Jr., a skater who trains with Bobek in Lake Arrowhead—the same mountain complex Kwan uses—agrees she is “more dedicated now” but adds that “Nicole is a free spirit who likes to go out and have fun.” He says Bobek didn’t start training seriously for the nationals until late November and notes that she sometimes splurges on burgers and Mexican food, in contrast to Kwan’s religiously adhered-to low-fat diet. On many weekends Bobek and her construction-worker boyfriend, Brian Hadden, 20, take her white Taurus, plastered with Grateful Dead stickers, down the mountain to shop on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue. “She’s a wild driver, and she’s got the music blasting,” says Baldwin. “You can’t even hear the wheels squeak when they take those tight mountain turns.”

But there are signs that Bobek is taking these Olympics seriously, perhaps realizing they may be her last chance as well as her first. “We talked a few times about going to Las Vegas with her boyfriend,” says Baldwin. But the talk remained just that: Bobek never broke training. “She knows what her responsibilities are,” he says.

Bobek, like Kwan, also chose to skip the Feb. 6 opening ceremonies in Nagano so she could continue to work out at Lake Arrowhead. Only Lipinski, the youngest and smallest U.S. Olympian, made it to the storm-wracked town in the Japanese alps in time for the torch lighting—and in time to meet Akebono, the champion sumo wrestler, who outweighed her by a mere 437 pounds. “He’s, uh, big,” she says. “But that’s what the Olympics is all about. Meeting different people.” As different as, say, her two teammates and rivals for Olympic glory? “We all get along,” says Lipinski of Bobek and Kwan. “But,” she adds, “on the ice is much different than off the ice.”