- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Dressed in black, her eyes red and swollen from crying, Michelle Kwan flashed none of the spark and charisma the world has come to admire. Her smile did little to hide her misery.

“I’ve had a great career. I’ve been very lucky,” she said, pausing to compose herself.

Everywhere but at the Olympics.

Kwan’s last chance to win the only medal that has eluded her grasp — an Olympic gold — ended sadly yesterday when she withdrew from the Turin Games because of a groin injury.

She has chased that medal for a decade, coming so close twice that she could feel its heavy weight around her neck. Now she’s headed home, her neck as empty as her heart.

After waiting four years for one final chance, the gold is all but certain to remain a dream unfulfilled.

Her body isn’t as indestructible as it once was — two groin injuries in less than two months — and she will be 29 by the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

“I can’t even think past right now,” she said, biting her lip and fighting tears. “It’s physical pain that’s keeping me from performing and skating. But it’s also emotional pain as well.”

Kwan wasn’t the only American athlete down emotionally yesterday. The United States’ Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves finished fifth and 10th, respectively, in the men’s downhill. The surprise winner was France’s Antoine Deneriaz, who finished in 1 minute, 48.80 seconds and beat Austria’s Michael Walchhofer by 0.72 seconds, the largest margin of victory in an Olympic men’s downhill in 42 years.

Skater Apolo Anton Ohno also stumbled out of a chance at gold in his first Olympic event, the semifinal heat of the 1,500 meters last night. Ohno nearly fell with 1 laps to go and wound up last across the line among those still skating. His mistake ruined any chance to defend his Olympic title in a much-anticipated showdown against South Korea’s 1-2 punch — Ahn Hyun-soo and Lee Ho-suk.

Meanwhile, Emily Hughes, the younger sister of 2002 Olympic figure skating champion Sarah Hughes, replaced Kwan on the U.S. team and will join national champion Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner. The women’s competition doesn’t begin until Feb. 21, and Hughes plans to spend a few days at home in Great Neck, N.Y., and in school before leaving for Turin.

“It was fair that Michelle had all the opportunities to make the Olympic team,” said Hughes, who finished third at the U.S. national championships last month but was bumped after Kwan got a medical bye onto the Olympic team. “It’s unfortunate that she was injured.

“I’m just ready to compete whatever it is. Right now, it is the Olympics.”

For Hughes, 17, this marks a beginning, her first major international competition. For Kwan, it’s likely the end.

She has been the face of figure skating for a decade, beloved as much for her grace and humility in defeat as her long list of triumphs. Though she won five world and nine U.S. titles, she is best remembered for her heartbreaking finishes at both the Nagano, Japan, and Salt Lake City Games. The favorite at each, she settled instead for a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002.

Indeed, the image of her sobbing as she stood below a beaming Tara Lipinski on the Nagano medals podium is as enduring as her majestic performance at the national championships a month earlier.

“I love her, win or lose,” said Frank Carroll, her coach from 1991 to 2001.

Fans felt the same way. They watched her morph from a shy 13-year-old on the fringe of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding soap opera to a world champion two years later to the poised young woman known all over the world.

“She was an ugly little duckling — she wasn’t ugly, but she was a little duckling with terrible costumes, dirty skates, awkward and no spirals,” Carroll said, smiling at the recollection. “To see her turn into a rock star in skating … and make a transformation from a duckling into a swan, that was probably the most exciting thing about her.”

Others might say it was her self-discipline and character, which seemed to grow as she became more popular. That she was one of skating’s solid citizens was never more evident than when she explained her reason for withdrawing.

“I would love to compete in my third Olympics, but I love and respect the sport, and I think it’s all about the United States bringing the best team to the Olympic Games,” Kwan said. “I wouldn’t want to be in the way of that.”

So much so that she planned to leave Turin before the women’s event began, not wanting to be a distraction.

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