Their awkwardness was glaringly obvious when they were asked to pose together for a picture on the ice.

Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek were doing their best to look chummy, but nobody wanted to get too close. Squeezing them into the same frame took some doing.Teammates, yes. Best buddies, no way. These three very different, very competitive young women are under enormous amounts of pressure to do the very same thing: win an Olympic gold medal.

"This is not like a bobsled, where they're all pushing the same sled," said Frank Carroll, Kwan's coach. "You're out there by yourself."

Women's figure skating begins Wednesday. It's the event for which America has waited because it's the event America could sweep.

Russia has won all the figure skating gold medals awarded so far: pairs, men's and ice dancing. But Kwan, Lipinski and Bobek are three reasons Russia may not do so well this time.

Each will follow very different paths because, aside from wanting the same medal, they have practically nothing in common. Not their styles, not their backgrounds, not their personalities.

Kwan was thrust into the spotlight four years ago as a shy, sweet-faced 13-year-old, a subplot in the Nancy-Tonya soap opera. A talented phenom with an independent streak - she disobeyed Carroll and took her Olympic qualifying test while he was out of town. She was the designated "other woman," in case Tonya Harding was kicked off the Olympic team.

She went about her business quietly, practicing by herself in a rink in Oslo, Norway. And when Harding was cleared to skate, Kwan became just another spectator. No one kept track of her every move. No one peppered her with incessant questions.

Fast-forward four years. A two-time U.S. champion and the gold-medal favorite, everything she does is news and her every move is monitored by either Carroll, her parents or her agent. At news conferences, she often looks at Carroll first before answering a question.

She arrived in Japan late, skipping the opening ceremony, and she's not staying in the Olympic Village.

"Michelle wants to feel very comfortable and be in an environment where she can sleep well and rest well with the intention of doing the very best performance she can do here for the United States," Carroll said.

And when Kwan's on, her best is just about perfect. The 1996 world champion received 15 perfect marks at the U.S. championships last month, and she's shown no ill effects from the stress fracture that sidelined her for two months before. The doubts that shook her psyche last season when she lost her world championship title have been erased.

Her skating can be summed up in one word: beautiful. She floats across the ice, a look of pure joy on her face. Her jumps are stylish, her footwork masterful, her artistry and presentation exquisite.

"I enjoy being the Olympic favorite," Kwan said. "But you don't think about winning Olympic gold. My winning program is to skate well, and that's what I'm here to do."

Her biggest competition will be Lipinski. The youngest world champion ever last year at 14, she's a human jumping jack who launches herself into triple after triple without breaking a sweat.

While she doesn't have the presence on the ice Kwan does, her artistry is improving. Her expressions no longer look forced, and her music suits her perfectly: light, airy numbers that portray her youthful spunk.

It was Lipinski's turn to struggle with the champion's role this season, losing to Kwan at Skate America and the U.S. national championship, where she even fell in the short program. She also lost to Laetitia Hubert of France at Trophy Lalique.

That could work to her advantage here. With all of the attention on Kwan, the pressure's off. "I feel very comfortable," she said. "I like being the underdog. It gives me a lot more things to think about and keeps me motivated."

Her looseness is no act. The only American woman who made the opening ceremony, Lipinski is taking advantage of everything the Olympics has to offer. Aside from 2 1/2 days of training in Osaka, she's been staying at the Olympic Village. She's made the rounds of the figure skating events and took in a hockey game.

She and roommate Jessica Joseph, a 15-year-old ice dancer, are scoping out the other athletes; Lipinski is on the hunt for totally cool Canadian hockey player Eric Lindros. "I wouldn't want to come to this like it was worlds, or stay in a hotel or not come to opening ceremonies," she said.

Take that, Kwan and Bobek.

While Kwan arrived two days after the games began, Bobek waited until Friday. Still recovering from bronchitis and a hip injury, she said it was better for her to stay home as long as possible.

She's not at the Olympic Village, either, bunking instead in a hotel with her mother. And after getting in so late, seeing the sights and other events isn't a high priority with figure skating's former wild child.

"I've never worked so hard in my life," she said. "I've even had trouble sleeping, having dreams about the Olympics and everything that can happen. It's something that I want."

After turbulent teen-age years, Bobek has grown up. She hasn't had a coaching switch in nearly two years - a record for someone who used to change coaches like most people change socks. She went back to Carlo Fassi, a father figure, before the 1997 season, and stayed with his wife, Christa, after Fassi died before last year's world championships.