Michelle Kwan will have no teddy bears thrown at her feet after her next performance. She won't be serenaded with cheers when she lands a jump, or hear squeals from little girls who want to become an ice princess just like her.
The doors will be closed to the public and media when she skates at the East West Ice Palace in Artesia, probably Friday, and five judges decide whether the 25-year-old Torrance native merits another chance to compete for the Olympic gold medal that has twice eluded her.
A pulled groin prevented Kwan from competing in the U.S. championships two weeks ago and winning a nomination to the U.S. figure skating team for the Turin Olympics. However, her stellar record -- nine U.S. titles, five world titles, a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Games and bronze at Salt Lake City four years ago -- earned her a bye onto the team conditional upon proving she's fit and can compete at an elite level.
The premier performer in the premier event in the Winter Olympics will make her case in secrecy, in the rink where she trains and in which she and her father have financial stakes. She will be judged according to a scoring system under which she has competed only once, at the 2005 world championships, and finished fourth.
"The U.S., in most sports, has a pure system for its Olympic selection process," said David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympic historian. "First across the line, you're on the team. This is another story. Any time a sport or a federation chooses to choose its team with people voting -- something other than a competition -- that opens a lot of problems."
She will skate for a group of judges led by Robert Horen, chairman of U.S. Figure Skating's International Committee. The other panelists have not been identified, but Horen said two weeks ago the slots would go to two skating judges, an athlete and a technical specialist, a person versed in the reformed scoring and judging system the sport adopted after a scandal destroyed its credibility at Salt Lake City.
The panel will announce its decision soon after she skates. If the judges don't see the excellence she has sustained for more than a decade, she will be replaced by Emily Hughes, the third-place finisher at the U.S. championships and younger sister of Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes. Sasha Cohen of Corona del Mar and Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, Md., were nominated to the U.S. team as the national champion and runner-up, respectively.
Figure skating is not unique in making clandestine decisions. U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams are customarily picked through processes that consider the results from the national championship or Olympic trials but give the coach wide latitude in choosing the lineup. Nor is it alone in granting injured athletes trips to the Olympics: Blaine Wilson and Jason Gatson did not participate in the 2004 U.S. gymnastics championships because of injuries but were selected to the Athens men's team, which won a silver medal.
U.S. Figure Skating has precedents for granting Olympic byes to injured athletes. Todd Eldredge sat out the 1992 U.S. competition because of a back problem but was included on the Albertville team. Nancy Kerrigan, unable to skate at the 1994 championships after being struck on the knee by associates of rival Tonya Harding, proved her readiness to a panel of judges -- also behind closed doors -- and bumped a 13-year-old Kwan off the Lillehammer roster.
Kwan, however, is like few skaters before her. Her grace after she lost to an exuberant Tara Lipinski in 1998 and a once-in-a-lifetime performance by Sarah Hughes in 2002 have given her an aura of class that's admired by fans and corporations, and her longevity is rare in a sport that can tax young bodies beyond the breaking point.
Her place in figure skating history may depend on her performance before those judges. So may the extent of her endorsements, a portfolio that includes deals to represent Coca-Cola, Visa and East West Bank. Her earnings have reached seven figures annually.
"There's a lot of interested stakeholders in wanting her to be there," said Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "There's a lot of outside interests pulling for her."
Susan McDermott, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said the company had not pressured U.S. Figure Skating or the U.S. Olympic Committee to favor Kwan in the selection process. Kwan is featured in Coca-Cola's "Live Olympics" campaign, which McDermott said emphasizes "what it means to live the Olympics every day, not just for the 17 days of the Games, and we believe she epitomizes that.
"We want what's best for her and the team. Michelle is already a two-time Olympic medalist and best-decorated American skater. Hopefully, she'll pull through."
Brandon Steiner, chief executive of New York-based Steiner Sports Marketing, said Kwan's Olympic quest has fans buzzing and TV networks salivating.
"The country loves this situation because they feel she's been a pretty good, solid citizen and they want to send her off with that last gold. In her line of business, you need the gold," he said. "
To have that shot, Kwan must skate well for the judging panel, though not necessarily flawlessly. She will probably skate her 2-minute 50-second short program, take a break, and perform her four-minute-long program.
"I'm sure that it will be fair. I'm sure everyone there will want Michelle to make it," said a figure skating official who requested anonymity. "She really doesn't have a negative about her.
"I think they'll be looking at her stamina, and to see if her performance is up to the polish that she's always had. It would be highly suspect if she had her planned elements and bailed out of them. They'll essentially look at it like a competition."
No matter how she fares in her test skate, she has already won the heart and support of Dominic Ng, chairman of East West Bank. The Southern California-based institution signed separate deals to have its name on the Artesia skating rink and to employ her as a spokeswoman. She signed a multiyear deal in March 2005, with bank officials cognizant that she might not return to the Olympics.
Ng said he has followed her career since she was 12. His niece, Susan Ng, competed at the junior level and trained under Kwan's former coach, Frank Carroll.
"This sport is so hard. That's why I admire people like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen," Ng said. "It's not about sponsors. Everybody thinks it's about money and sponsors. I hope that she is healthy and can step on the ice rink one more time and does the best she can. If she got lucky and wins a medal, wouldn't that be the best thing that ever happened in sports?"
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
20th Winter Olympics
* Where: Turin, Italy.
* When: Feb. 10-26.
figure skating, freestyle skiing, hockey, luge, Nordic
combined, short-track speedskating, skeleton, ski jumping, snowboard, speedskating.