Only Her Heart Was Still in It
Michelle Kwan always followed her heart, outlasting most of her figure skating contemporaries on sheer will and an unshakable love for a sport whose new judging system didn’t love her back.
Her body, however, did not serve her as well.
On Sunday, with the pain of a day-old groin injury slowing her step and sorrow searing her soul, the five-time world champion ended her epic gold-medal quest with teary eyes and a clear head.
Kwan, twice a medalist but never an Olympic champion, withdrew from the Turin Games early Sunday morning after concluding that a strained muscle would not allow her to skate with the finesse and freedom that have dazzled judges and fans for more than a decade.
“It’s one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make, but I know it’s the right one,” she said at a news conference here Sunday.
“I didn’t think in my heart that I could be at my best.”
Her withdrawal opened a spot for 17-year-old Emily Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., the third-place finisher at last month’s national championships and younger sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes.
About three hours after the U.S. Olympic Committee requested that Hughes be allowed to replace Kwan, it received approval from Turin organizers, the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee.
The organizations “bent over backward to assist us to make this as smooth as possible,” said Jim Scherr, USOC chief executive.
Kwan, 25, the daughter of immigrants who operated a Chinese restaurant in Torrance and once sold their house to finance her skating ambitions and those of her older sister, Karen, missed the national championships because of a pulled groin muscle. As permitted by U.S. Figure Skating’s rules, she petitioned for a medical bye onto the Turin team.
The nine-time U.S. champion and five-time world champion was granted a spot conditional upon proving her readiness to a panel of judges. Five U.S. Figure Skating monitors watched her perform her long and short programs at East West Ice Palace in Artesia on Jan. 27 and unanimously recommended her for an Olympic berth. One of the panelists, Charles Cyr, visited her again Feb. 2 to check on her progress.
Kwan arrived in Turin last week and marched in the opening ceremony on Friday, subjecting herself to the cold for several hours. She said she felt stiffness in her groin afterward and awoke with stiffness on Saturday.
During a practice session that morning, she landed only one jump perfectly, a triple toe loop. She injured her groin while attempting a triple flip, a tricky but basic jump, and fell when she tried it again. She cut short her practice to seek medical treatment.
“When I did the triple flip, it just didn’t feel right,” she said, “but I didn’t think, ‘This is going to be bad. I can’t skate after this.’ ”
Persistent pain led her to call U.S. team officials about 2 a.m., local time, and ask to see a doctor. Jim Moeller examined her and diagnosed a groin strain that was not related to her previous injury but “would put her at risk for further injury” if she competed.
“I didn’t think, in my heart, that I could be at my best,” she said. “I love and respect the sport and think it’s all about the U.S. bringing the best team to the Olympics, and I wouldn’t want to be in the way of that.”
Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the USOC, lauded Kwan’s composure after they’d chatted Sunday.
“It was difficult in my view because she was feeling some pain from the injury and showing the disappointment in her heart,” he said. “She was a champion, she is a champion, and she is very strong.”
Kwan said she would watch the rest of the Games from her Los Angeles home so as not to be a distraction and encroach upon Hughes’ moment.
“The Olympics is an incredible experience,” said Kwan, who won a silver medal behind an exuberant Tara Lipinski at Nagano in 1998 and stumbled to a bronze-medal finish behind Sarah Hughes and Russian Irina Slutskaya four years ago at Salt Lake City.
“I know [Emily Hughes] will have an amazing time and make the country proud. I know she has been working really hard, and I know she is ready.”
Hughes said she planned to arrive in Turin later this week in time to familiarize herself with the rink where the women’s competition will begin Feb. 21. Hughes’ teammates are recently crowned national champion Sasha Cohen of Corona del Mar and 16-year-old Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, Md., who was second at the national championships.
“Sasha and I are very disappointed Michelle is not here,” said John Nicks, Cohen’s coach. “Over the last few years, Michelle has really dominated at U.S. nationals and Sasha has prevailed internationally at the world championships.
“We were looking for a good battle but notwithstanding Michelle’s absence, we will still have a good battle.... She, of course, had a wonderful record. We will miss her.”
Hughes also praised Kwan’s character.
“I feel that Michelle has been very gracious and very humble. It’s unfortunate that she is injured,” said Hughes, a junior at Great Neck North High. “I have a lot of respect for her on and off the ice. She’s accomplished a lot in her career.”
Kwan was 17 and the gold-medal favorite when she lost a narrow decision to a 15-year-old Lipinski at Nagano. Unlike Lipinski, who relinquished her Olympic eligibility, Kwan decided to continue on the Olympic track. She qualified for the Salt Lake City Games by winning the U.S. title before an adoring hometown crowd at Staples Center but was again disappointed. Through circumstances unique to the judging system then in effect, Kwan finished third.
Sarah Hughes left the competitive ranks for college, but Kwan remained, reaping financial rewards from companies that believed her image of grace and perseverance would sell their movies, yogurt and soft drinks. But while she fended off younger challengers, figure skating underwent profound changes.
A new judging-scoring system was introduced in response to a judging scandal that rocked the Salt Lake City Games, and it placed a premium on performing difficult spins and jumps.
Kwan limited her competitive schedule as the system was being phased in and didn’t learn its quirks. She was judged only once by its standards, finishing fourth at last year’s world championships and ending a streak of nine consecutive medals in that event.
“I’ve done pretty well under the old 6.0 system, so I like that one,” she said jokingly on Saturday. “I have to evolve with the sport. It is a challenge.”
It was among the few challenges she didn’t conquer.
Dressed in black Sunday, she was subdued but poised until she was asked about the one prize she has never won. She bit her lip before responding, and tears moistened her eyes.
“It’s always been a dream to win the Olympics and it’s always an honor to represent your country and your sport,” she said. “I’ve learned it’s not about the gold. It’s about the spirit of it....
“If I don’t win the gold, it’s OK. I’ve had a great career. I’ve been very lucky.”
Times staff writer Alan Abrahamson contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Michelle Kwan dropped out of the Turin Games on Sunday morning because of a groin injury, ending her decade-long quest for an Olympic gold. The highlights, and lowlights, of her career:
* 1994 -- Finishes second at national championships, but is left off the Olympic team when Nancy Kerrigan receives a medical bye. Kerrigan had been injured at a practice session for nationals by an attacker hired by associates of skater Tonya Harding. The 13-year-old Kwan travels to Norway as an alternate, but doesn’t compete.
* 1996 -- Wins national and world titles, her first of each.
* 1998 -- Goes to Nagano Olympics as the favorite and leads after short program, but ends up second to Tara Lipinski in first 1-2 finish for the United States in women’s figure skating since 1956.
* 2001 -- Wins fourth world championship and fifth national title, but splits with her longtime coach, Frank Carroll, later in the year.
* 2002 -- Favored again, but skating without a coach, she wins the bronze medal at Salt Lake City Olympics. Teammate Sarah Hughes surprisingly takes the gold.
* 2003 -- Under new coach Scott Williams, Kwan wins her fifth world championship, becoming the first woman to reclaim the world title three times. She later switches coaches again, from Williams to Rafael Arutunian.
* 2004 -- Finishes third at World Championships, her ninth consecutive year with a medal. Only Sonja Henie, with 11, has more.
* 2005 -- Joins Maribel Vinson as the only skaters with nine national titles, winning record eighth in succession, then misses entire Grand Prix season leading to Olympics because of a hip injury.
* 2006 -- Withdraws from national championships with a groin injury, but receives spot on Olympic team after satisfying a five-person monitoring committee during a practice session in late January. Cuts short first practice in Turin after straining a groin muscle, then withdraws from Games the next day.