Michelle Kwan probably will be remembered as the best skater of the last half-century who didn’t win Olympic gold. The most popular, too.
Five world championships. Nine U.S. championships.
Zero Olympic gold medals.
And apparently, Kwan, 29, will end her career with Zero in Olympic Gold, having announced Friday that she will not attempt to qualify for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and, instead, will go to Tufts University for a graduate degree in international affairs.
That gap on her resume doesn’t mean she wasn’t a great skater. But such is the status of winter sports that if you don’t win gold in the Olympics … well, that is far more likely to stick in the average fan’s head than those 14 world and national championships. It’s not fair, but it’s real.
And we can only speculate at how often Team Kwan have allowed their minds to stray back to the 1998 and 2002 Olympics and wonder how gold slipped away. Twice.
It probably doesn’t make for pleasant memories.
In 1998, at the Nagano Olympics, Kwan was the clear favorite, and led after the short program. But Kwan was timid and colorless in the free skate, and teen teammate Tara Lipinski, performing as if she had nothing to lose (and she didn’t), blew past her for the gold.
In 2002, at the Salt Lake Olympics, Kwan again was the favorite, but she arrived at the Games without a coach, a decision that is as inexplicable now as it was then, and floundered, again, in the free skate, and another teen teammate, Sarah Hughes, blew past her for the gold, and she got the bronze, behind Irina Slutskaya.
In 2006, at the Turin Olympics, Kwan was hurt, made the team through a special, closed-door process, got to Turin, Italy, and then pulled herself out of the Olympics.
The day before she gave up, I wrote a column suggesting she should withdraw, a column that generated scads of hate mail from Kwan’s impassioned fans. But they were thinking with their hearts, not their heads, and I was writing from the interview Kwan gave after a disastrous practice session.
Michelle Kwan was a significant part of my professional life, from about 1993 through 2006. She spent most of that time based at Lake Arrowhead, Calif., honing her skills at the Ice Castle International Training Center. More than once, I ventured up the hill to talk to her or her coach, Frank Carroll, and watch her work out.
And, when I covered the Olympics of 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 … she was always a story. Particularly because she was “local” to the San Bernardino Sun, my home newspaper.
In 1994, she was a kid of 13 who was in Lillehammer, Norway, as an alternate, ready to go if Nancy Kerrigan was unable to recover from the aftereffects of an attack staged on her by associates of her skating rival, Tonya Harding. Kerrigan skated; Kwan didn’t. She was disappointed, but she knew she would have other chances.
I watched her compete dozes of times, strained to her hear speak in crowded mixed zones, attended numerous press conferences.
I liked Michelle Kwan, the athlete. She was modest, polite, well-spoken … and gracious in defeat as she was in victory. I never saw her in a “prima donna moment” — usually common among the elite skate crowd. She never was rude. And I never recall her speaking out in anger.
It was no wonder that she was so popular.
Three factors that I believe played into her failure to win gold:
–Poor luck. She got to Nagano in 1998 while still recovering from a stress fracture in one of her toes. Perhaps that planted doubt in her mind. Whatever its source, doubt seemed to cripple Kwan in the long program, where she was stiff and joyless with gold there to be taken — with gold in her grasp.
–Poor planning. Going to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake without a coach was just perverse. Everyone needs a professional perspective on their performances, but Kwan (or her father, Danny) fired Frank Carroll, and it couldn’t possibly have helped her when she uncorked another crummy free skate.
–Poor timing. This was beyond the control of Michelle Kwan or anyone else, but just as she was breaking onto the world stage, women’s figure skating was making a profound change. The previous emphasis on precision, grace and style (see: Peggy Fleming) was giving way to an emphasis on athleticism and jumps — especially triple-rotation jumps. Kwan was always a better stylist than jumper, and the seismic shift in the sport hurt her. In short, both Lipinski and Hughes outjumped her for gold, and she withdrew in 2006 because she knew she didn’t have the triples in her to compete.
There will be those who will say winning Olympic gold isn’t that big a deal, but Kwan’s own career path belies that idea. She would not have stuck around the rink if she had won gold. She would have retired, almost certainly, as Lipinski and Hughes both did almost immediately after winning their golds. She would not have been toying with the idea of a comeback, still, in 2010.
Michelle Kwan kept plugging, trying to adjust — while aging — to a sport that had morphed in the middle of her career. We have to give her credit for trying. We must acknowledge that she jumped well enough to stay among the world’s elite for a very long time.
And the gold medal? How important? Let’s turn to Christine Brennan, perhaps the nation’s foremost writer on ice skating for the past generation.
Before the 2002 Olympics, Brennan said of Kwan, “If she wins that Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City, I think she will be seen as the greatest figure skater in history. Without the Olympic gold medal, I think she will be seen as the second, third or fourth best in history.”
I agree. That’s the curse of winter sports. You can be good, really really good — and Kwan was — but without that Olympic gold, you’re somewhere down the list of all-time greats.