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Nagano Is Still Kwan’s Target

It was not the year-ending program Michelle Kwan originally had in mind for 1997--a 30-minute conference call with reporters performed to the theme from “My Left Foot.”

Queries from the media included:

How was her left foot feeling?

When did she realize her left foot had a stress fracture?

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Why did she compete at Skate Canada after realizing her left foot had a stress fracture?

What did she do while her left foot was in a cast?

Is her left foot now stable enough to withstand triple jumps on the ice?

Will her left foot hurt her chances at next month’s U.S. national championships?

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Suffice it to say, it’s an important left foot.

With no pain, with Kwan able to complete her short and long programs, the 1996 world champion would appear to be the prohibitive favorite for the Olympic gold medal in Nagano in February.

Tara Lipinski? Certainly, there was much hype and hysteria surrounding her recent victory at the Champions Series Final in Munich--Tara Wins Olympic Preview!--was the tone of most of the coverage.

But Lipinski won without having to skate against Kwan, who missed the Champions Series Final because of her foot injury. Which proved what--that Lipinski can out-skate Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya?

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When fit and confident, Kwan is a more poised and sophisticated skater than Lipinski--simply put, the most polished skater in the world.

But, therein lies the solid-gold question:

Will Kwan and her left foot be fit enough for Nagano?

“I do have some pain in my foot,” said Kwan, who resumed training Dec. 1 after sitting out the last three weeks of November. “I usually grade from one to 10 [10 being worst] how my foot feels every day. After Skate Canada, I would rate it about nine. But every day, it’s been going lower and lower.

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“I’ve been increasing my skating up to, like, 50%, and the pain level hasn’t gone up a bit. So it’s about a 3 or a 4 right now. It still hurts, but I think I can stand the pain and I’ll be there at nationals. And if it hurts, I’m still going to try and skate.”

According to Kwan and her coach, Frank Carroll, Kwan first experienced pain in her foot in August, prompting an examination that determined Kwan had a year-old stress fracture of the second toe of the left foot.

She continued to skate with the injury, competing at Skate America in late October and Skate Canada in early November--winning both events.

But the pain worsened at Skate Canada--Kwan won despite a nasty spill she describes as “a dead butterfly"--and eventually led to Kwan’s foot and ankle being immobilized in a cast for two weeks.

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Was it a mistake to try to skate through the pain?

“The way I looked at it,” Kwan said, “if I didn’t go to Skate Canada, I would never find out how painful my foot could be. . . .

“I was ready. I was feeling 100% good until, like, the week going there. My foot started hurting and I thought, ‘Hey, you know I’m still skating really well--I think I can stand the pain.’ I thought it was good enough to compete. I wanted more experience, so that by the time the Olympics came around, I’d feel really comfortable.”

Instead, Kwan missed the second half of her Champions Series schedule, skipping both the NHK Trophy competition in Nagano and the Series Final, and won’t skate competitively again until Jan. 8--the women’s short program at the U.S. championships in Philadelphia.

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Provided her foot is willing.

“Thank God she has time to recover from her injury before the Olympic Games,” Carroll said. “Maybe at the nationals we’re not going to be as ready as we could be, but the Olympics are another month [after that].”

WILD CARD LOOMING?

Then again, Kwan’s presence is not absolutely required in Philadelphia. Ostensibly, the top three women at the nationals will qualify for the Olympics, but technically, only the winner is assured a berth on the U.S. team. The U.S. Olympic selection procedure includes a provision by which Kwan could finish out of the top three--or not even skate at all--and still qualify for the Games.

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Carroll said, “If Michelle did not compete at the nationals, [the committee] would talk about her going to the Olympics after the nationals. Or if she did compete at nationals, and supposing she didn’t even finish in the top three, they might consider to probably send her anyway, one way or another.

“I think she would go, just based on her past record--being world champion and [now] second in the world.”

Kwan, however, would just as soon table that sort of committee discussion.

“This is the Olympic year and I want to get the full taste of it,” she said. “I want the whole experience--the nationals and then making it. I want to earn it.”

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That gives her left foot about 10 more days before full cooperation is needed.

“I’m, like, skating 70% in my accuracy of doing all the jumps,” Kwan said. “It’s not feeling too good. My confidence level is in the middle and I’m trying to get it motivated to move up. . . .

"[But] the pain level has dropped a lot and my foot seems to be healing pretty good. So hopefully I can raise up my percentage in my jumps and feel on top of the world again.”

HAPPY . . . HOLIDAYS

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Heavy snowfall around Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, on Monday forced the postponement of the final event of the pre-Christmas alpine skiing World Cup season, prompting heavy fallout from Italy’s temperamental ski champion, Alberto Tomba.

Claiming he did not want to disappoint the legions of Tomba fans who had made the trek to Madonna, Tomba lashed out at the International Ski Federation (FIS) for calling off the men’s slalom before a single run had been attempted.

“It’s a great shame for all the people who have come up to Madonna,” Tomba said. “They could at least have tried to race.”

FIS officials, however, maintained that the course was too dangerous for competition and criticized Tomba for putting himself and his fans ahead of the safety of other skiers.

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“Alberto is a great showman,” FIS World Cup race director Guenter Hujara said. “He had bib No. 3 [meaning he would have been the third skier down the slope]. Give him bib No. 18 or 20 and I think his argument would probably be different. . . . The fact is, the conditions were not good enough for a World Cup race.”

And because of Christmas, Hujara said, the race could not have been rescheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.

“This is a World Cup, it’s global, and we can’t keep skiers in Europe when they want to go home for Christmas,” Hujara told the Italian press. “If it were the other way around and we were making skiers stay in North America to race on the 23rd and 24th, you would be the first to report the tears in Tomba’s eyes at missing Christmas at home.”

Tomba was not alone, however, in his criticism of the FIS decision. When Hujara’s news conference was interrupted by an angry slope worker who contended the course was skiable, Hujara stormed out of the room.

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“I’ll talk to journalists but I won’t listen to a man who insults me when I call off a race,” Hujara said.

Eventually, Hujara returned and speculated that the canceled slalom could be rescheduled for Germany sometime in January.

“In the meantime,” Hujara said, “while we try to sort out the calendar, Merry Christmas to everyone.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Calendar

FIGURE SKATING

* Jan. 4-11: U.S. Figure Skating Championships (Philadelphia).

ALPINE SKIING WORLD CUP

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* Tuesday: Alpine World Cup men’s downhill (Bormio, Italy).

* Tuesday-Saturday: U.S. Ski Team World Cup at Lake Placid, N.Y. (Alpine, cross-country, freestyle, Nordic combined and ski jumping. Winners qualify for Olympics.)

BOBSLED

* Tuesday-Wednesday: U.S. two-man Olympic trials (Park City, Utah).

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SPEEDSKATING

* Jan. 10-11 and 17-18: U.S. short-track Olympic trials (Lake Placid, N.Y.)

* Jan. 13-14: World Cup long-track sprint (Baselga di Pine, Italy).

* Jan. 17-18: World Cup long-track all-around (Innsbruck, Austria).

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SWIMMING

* Jan. 12-18: FINA World Championships (Perth, Australia).

Calendar


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