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Michelle Kwan Leaves … Without Olympic Gold

August 1st, 2009 · 9 Comments · Olympics

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.

But …

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.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Debbie // Aug 3, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    I DO NOT think you are accurate with your assessment AT ALL! An Olympic Gold Medal is NOT her defining moment of any one’s career – it can be luck –
    PURE LUCK, sometimes, to win one. What about all her other accomplishments? Are those, in opposite, as worthless/meaningless? She’s won everything else BUT! She’s been at THE TOP of her sport – so many times, for so long – ISN’T THAT enough for thirsty, greedy, sports-media writers such as yourself??
    There are SO MANY people that make up an Olympics, a sport, a competition. Not everyone will be an Olympic champion. If one doesn’t make that status, does that mean that they’re a piece of sh*t? I think not!

    Best you go BACK and RE-READ the Olympic creed/Motto – it is better to have competed, than to have won; it is better to have fought hard, than to have won the battle……(or something to that measure….you’ll get my drift)

  • 2 Melissa // Nov 21, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Those are my thoughts as well.

    Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE Michelle Kwan, but I feel that Frank Carroll could have fixed her too-soon-rotated, “toe-slipping” triple flip, etc. whichever it is, at the 2002 Olympics. After the olympics, if she really needed to switch, she should have switched to Rafael Arutunian immediately and just skip Scott Williams. In addition, half of her unrelated Vera Wang dresses just took away from the 2003-2004 programs.

    Nonetheless, I still watch each each of her programs 20X. She is still my favorite skater next to Kristi Yamaguchi. Maybe the tie is cause she didn’t win Olympic Gold.

    Her career was like a life story. In 1993, she had the technical guts but not the artistic package. From 1996-2005, she had the technical and artistic elements, but she made a few mistakes along the way. Lyra Angelica was still a good skate. In 2006, her body just gave up and yes the sport changed into a flexibility and triple-triple fest.

  • 3 david // Feb 17, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    It’s ridiculous to write her career as something like a tragedy.

    Not having the Olympic gold is a huge disappointment for her resume. It was obviously very important to her.

    But what she has that other skaters didn’t have was the luck to be a great skater while coming into the scene during the Kerrigan/Harding saga That popularity will probably never be matched in the years ahead for the sport. It’s the reason why her resume will ultimately prevail over the lack of an Olympic gold.

    Well, time will ultimately tell, but she’ll probably go down as the greatest. Not second or third or anywhere down the list of greats. Her popularity was too strong.

  • 4 angela // Feb 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    One question. Can anyone even name the women’s gold medalist from the last olympics? I can’t. That’s how memorable and important she was to the sport. And as for Ms. Lipinski and Ms. Hughes, they just won their medals and left the sport forever. Tara had destroyed her hips so much from her jumps that she was pretty much unable to jump past the age of 20. Michelle Kwan inspired far more girls in the decade plus that she endured.

  • 5 JNagarya // Dec 24, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    It’s seriously unfortunate that Michelle Kwan didn’t “win” Olympic gold. But if one does the math — not the popularity contest and politics — one discovers that she was artifically denied the Gold by at least 1/10th, and Lipinski was artifically awarded the Gold by 1/10 of that 10th.

    It’s my view that if ine is eligible to compete in an event, one is therefore eligible to medal. Until Kwan was 15 she was denied medals — not because she didn’t blow the other skaters off the ice; she did that. But because she allegedly “lacked maturity”. (Tonya Harding was mature?) Where in the rules is “maturity” the measure, instead of the skills in the sport?

    Then, at the Olympics, she, the mature, was passed over for the immature Tara.

    Otherwise, the Olympics is a glorified Worlds: the same field of skaters. And there is the fact that one doesn’t judge a career by a single event. Kwan won 9 Nationals to Lipinski’s 1. Kwan won 5 Worlds to Lipinski’s 1. Her record against Hughes was even better. Longevity, endurance, talent, commitment — and sheer love of skating: Kwan outstripped them all in all those particulars.

    And in maturity.

    Michelle Kwan is the Gold Standard everyone else is measured against. That’s more significant than an Olympic gold, especially when measured against two flash-in-the-pans whose careers were otherwise undistinguished.

    Kwan: over 50 perfect 6.0s. Second-most Boitano with 9. Lipinski? Hughes? ‘Nuff said.

  • 6 Geoffrey Tobin // Feb 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Michelle Kwan’s personality is very likeable, but she has been over-rated, perhaps because of it.

    One major competition had Michelle, another American and a European skater. Michelle played it very safe, attempting no difficult moves, but fell. Both her competitors performed very difficult leaps and spins, made no significant mistake, were more stylish, and still Michelle was marked the most highly.

    It is a truism that judges in sports where score is not objectively set (e.g. by scoring goals) are as blatantly biased as those in the Eurovision song contest. There should be an independent disciplinary panel to punish them.

  • 7 dj ferr // Feb 6, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Didn’t disney named michelle The Perseverance award or something… that’s not just in sport, that’s the entire humanity. She wanted that gold so bad, that she kept on going and going until her body wasn’t working with her age anymore. Figure skating I don’t consider a sport, if you are BEING JUDGE by how high you jump and how well you can spin. Hell, make a damn robot if so, but can a robot skate with such figure and effervesnce flow and execute an exquisite fine of artistry? It’s so sad this sport, or any sport for the matter to where your medal relies on another persons criticism

  • 8 susan // Nov 30, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Actually she wasn’t stiff and joyless in Nagano – you should watch it again. In fact, if she had done the same performance at Salt Lake City, she would have won the gold. The perception of the Nagano skate may have been affected in the minds of judges by how amazing she had been at Nationals that year. Lipinski was full of joy but still an inferior skater on so many levels.

  • 9 Get Real // Apr 13, 2017 at 11:15 am

    Oh puuuuuuuuuulease…..Kwan is a mediocre skater whose ‘fame’ is due only to being a rink rat for so many years. She was hardly robbed in Nagano, she was also seen trying to nick Tara’s trademark triple combo, and she has the ethics of a morally corrupt egomaniac. Even after all she has done, pout cry thumbs down refuse an interview even after a total train wreck of a performance that was hardly deserving of any mark higher than 4, but still got Silver ahead of Nicole and greedily grabbed the trip to worlds. Reality check people. Reality check!!

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