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Monday, February 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Not Kwan swan song we sought, but best move

Seattle Times staff columnist

TURIN, Italy — Painful, yes. But in a lot of ways, it's better.

It's better that Michelle Kwan, the greatest U.S. women's figure skater of all time, steps aside before the skating curtain even rises in the XXth Winter Games.

It's better that she exits as one of America's great winter-sports champions, even without that hallowed gold medal, than to go into the record books on her back after failing to land a triple-triple combination at the Palavela.

It's better that the U.S., hoping to consolidate the new Winter Games power it seized in Salt Lake City four years ago, launches its youth movement by replacing the injured Kwan with 17-year-old Emily Hughes.

And it's better that the skating focus of these Games now will turn to where it should have been all along: the pending gold-medal showdown between Kwan's heir apparent, Sasha Cohen, 21, and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, who at 26 could become the Games oldest women's champion.

None of that glass-half-full thinking, of course, made for many smiley faces Sunday on U.S. Olympic Committee officials, who saw their marquee player for the world's biggest sports event slink off the stage before unzipping the warmups.

For Americans and their happy TV network, NBC, there's no denying the gaping interest hole left in the Turin Games by the departure of Kwan, who was sullen and teary-eyed at a news conference here Sunday morning.

Kwan highlights


Michelle Kwan may not have won the Olympic gold medal she wanted so badly, but she won plenty of other big prizes during her long career:

Olympics

Silver medal (1): 1998 (Nagano)

Bronze medal (1): 2002 (Salt Lake City).

World Championships

First place (5): 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003.

Second place (3): 1997, 1999, 2002.

U.S. Championships

First place (9): 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005.

Second place (3): 1994, 1995, 1997.

It will create ample second-guessing about the process to place the long-injured Kwan, 25, on the Olympic squad in the first place. Ample and pointless: The various bodies involved followed their own rules to do it. They also made a pragmatic choice, allowing Kwan to head toward a Feb. 21 short-program start date until her body told her otherwise.

Two days ago, it did. Her first steps on the ice in Turin were tentative. The following ones were terrifying. She took a hard fall attempting a triple flip, and cut Saturday's workout short. By the end of the day, it became clear to her, her doctors, and everyone involved that Kwan's '06 Olympic adventure was over.

It was a case of Kwan, the nine-time U.S. and five-time world champion, finally admitting to herself that this was the end of the line.

"I respect the Olympics too much to compete," she said Sunday.

Should she have bailed out a month ago, after realizing she couldn't compete at the nationals in January? With the benefit of hindsight, probably.

She should have known the groin tear that followed a hip injury was, as she likes to say, her body talking to her. She should have listened to herself when she repeated, over and over, "I'm not 13 anymore."

The cold truth about ice skating, particularly the bent-pretzel way it is conducted at elite levels today, is that it's a sport for the young. Kwan, at 25, doesn't qualify under that harshest of scoring systems. And there's no appealing your age to a higher judging authority.

Sure, she should have known. But it's tough to tell the heart of a champion to slow down and beat like the ticker of a mere mortal.

The best that can be hoped for Kwan — who turned down an offer from NBC to be a commentator and said she would leave the Games rather than risk becoming a distraction — is that she'll listen to the voices around her urging her to focus on an unmatched career, not this inglorious ending.

"Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed for the U.S. Olympic Committee," USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth said Sunday. "She's been a leader, she's been gracious, she's somebody that cares for so many youngsters that are training in our country."

She has been the face of her sport for more than a decade. Also the legs, arms, knees, torso and heart. She alone had the star power sufficient to keep competitive figure skating one level above the intruding chaos sown by knee-whackers, sellouts and payoffs.

With Kwan gone, U.S. women's skating could enter a short nosedive. You hope younger charges Cohen, 21, Kimmie Meissner, 16, and Hughes are capable of pulling up on the stick. The next 10 days in Turin will be a good indicator.

But one thing about the future is clear: It'll never be as sweet, as poetic or as proud as the immediate past, the one in which you could count on Kwan, her signature spiral, and that transcendent smile to keep taking her sport to a place of grace it had never been.

You can only hope that at some point this week, with Turin in the rear-view mirror, she will look back at her silver and bronze medals, at the pile of world and national championships, at the millions of adoring fans, and take to heart what she said earlier this week, when someone asked what has kept her motivated all these years.

"I think of kids stepping onto the ice for the very first time, and just the happiness on their faces," she said without even thinking.

"It's a great sport. It's not life or death."

Even on days when it feels like it.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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