- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

TURIN, Italy — It ended in the middle of the night in the athletes’ village, not center stage on the ice. In a way, that was fitting because Michelle Kwan didn’t need one more public disappointment.

No athlete exemplified grace, class and character more than Kwan. No skater was so identified with her failures that it was almost impossible to appreciate her accomplishments.

Kwan cried when she won silver in Nagano, wept after having to settle for bronze in Salt Lake City. She skated through her adolescence and into adulthood chasing a gold medal that always seemed so tantalizingly close yet was always so far away.

Kwan wasn’t going to win it here.

Not at age 25 with her practice limited because of a strained groin. Not when she was competing under new rules she still wasn’t comfortable with. Not when she couldn’t land difficult combinations like triple-triples that other contestants routinely do.

There was no reason to humiliate herself trying.

She decided at 2:15 yesterday morning she wouldn’t, calling a doctor to get the official diagnosis and then her parents to let them know the dream she had nourished since she was a little girl was over.

It was a groin injury. The doctor didn’t get around to examining her broken heart.

“My parents always wanted me to be happy and for their baby to win the gold,” Kwan said.

She tried to do both, succeeding at one but finally failing at the other. Kwan didn’t officially call it quits yesterday, but she might as well have. The next Olympics are four long years away, and the thousands of spins, jumps and falls on hard ice have taken a toll on her body far beyond her years.

If she’s gone, she leaves with some remarkable accomplishments — and one giant hole in her resume. There were five world titles, an astonishing nine American championships and enough ancillary metal to stock the Federal Reserve.

Missing, though, was the Olympic gold that defines careers.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Kwan was more disciplined and dedicated than most in a sport that celebrates its young one day and casually tosses them aside the next. She stayed with her first real coach, Frank Carroll, for an unheard-of 10 years and stuck with figure skating even through her most bitter disappointments.

“She was very eager to learn what she had to do to succeed,” Carroll said. “She wanted to succeed very badly.”

She wasn’t the only one.

NBC built two Olympics around her and planned a third. You couldn’t miss her Friday night in the network’s coverage of the opening ceremony, and the story of Kwan coming back from a previous groin injury to be named to the team was critical to NBC’s drive for prime-time ratings.

Instead, she’s heading home after just one practice session that went awry. The video the network beams out won’t be of Kwan looking dazzling on the ice, but those of her dressed all in black sitting so alone and trying to make sense of it all to a crowd of journalists who somehow sensed it coming.

One glance at Kwan’s face showed she had been crying, and she wept as she left the stage. In between, though, she spoke in measured, almost somber tones as she tried to put an entire career into perspective with just a few sentences.

“If I don’t win the gold, it’s OK,” she said. “I’ve had a great career, and I’ve been lucky. This is a sport, and it’s beautiful.”

Kwan was beautiful in her sport, too. The images many will remember will be of a majestic skater so fluid on the ice and so precise in her jumps that, when she was on, she could leave a crowd breathless.

But on the world’s biggest stage, the images were far more stark. Kwan was the gold medal favorite in 1998 in Nagano and skated well but was reduced to tears when Tara Lipinski skated a magical performance to snatch the gold away from her.

Four years later in Salt Lake City, she sobbed so much her makeup came off after winning only bronze while Sarah Hughes got the gold. The next night more tears streamed down her face as she wore a gold costume and performed to the song “Fields of Gold” in the exhibition final.

Unfortunately for Kwan, she will be remembered more for what she didn’t do than what she did. Like Ernie Banks, who never got into a World Series, or Dan Marino, who made the Hall of Fame without ever winning a Super Bowl, she will be the great athlete who couldn’t win when it counted most.

In her heart, Kwan still believed she could if given one last chance in Turin. In her mind, she must have known this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending.

Kwan finally listened to her inner voices of doubt in the early morning darkness nearly a half a world away from her California home. She came to the realization, however sad, that it was over.

There will be no Olympic gold for Michelle Kwan.

Not here. Not ever.


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