TURIN, Italy - A career so long and sweet ended far too quickly, with tears and heartbreak.
Michelle Kwan heads home from the Turin Olympics empty-handed, betrayed by a body that carried her to nine U.S. championships and five world titles, but no Olympic gold.
“It’s always been a dream to win the Olympics,” Kwan said Sunday, her eyes red and puffy from the tears that flowed for who knows how long. “But I’ve learned it’s not about the gold, it’s about the spirit of it and about the sport itself.”
A new groin injury suffered in her only practice on Olympic ice forced Kwan to withdraw from the U.S. team she made in the first place on a medical bye.
“I evaluated my body and had to make a decision,” she said. “It’s one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make, but I know it’s the right one.”
And the most painful one, because it almost certainly is the end for Kwan.
At 25, it was too much to expect Kwan to soar like a teenage prodigy — even she understood that. But skating’s ultimate trouper had turned low expectations into championships so often that it wasn’t a reach to rule out anything, including gold.
Until, that is, she reached the ice in Turin.
“I have no regrets. I tried my hardest,” she said. “And if I don’t win the gold, it’s OK. I’ve had a great career. I’ve been very lucky. This is a sport, and it’s beautiful.”
The Kwan who came to Turin was past her prime, with only one major international victory since 2001 and very few competitive appearances outside the United States. But summoning up a champion’s resolve has been Kwan’s trademark, and doubting she could find it again seemed foolhardy.
Now, it looks like Kwan’s last gasp for gold was foolhardy.
A 2:15 a.m. Sunday visit to U.S. team doctor Jim Moeller confirmed that. Moeller recommended she not skate; by then, Kwan knew it herself.
“You don’t have to hear it from somebody else to know you’re in pain,” she said.
Kwan’s misfortune is Emily Hughes’ good luck. The 17-year-old younger sister of 2002 Olympic winner Sarah Hughes was told Saturday night by U.S. skating officials to pack for Turin. She’s expected to arrive this week; a blizzard in New York could complicate her travel plans.
“It was fair that Michelle had all the opportunities to make the Olympic team,” said Hughes, who finished third at nationals last month but was bumped after Kwan got the medical bye onto the Olympic team. “It’s unfortunate that she was injured.
She joins national champion Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner on the team. The women’s event begins Feb. 21.
By then, Kwan will be deep into contemplating her future, which almost certainly won’t include competitive skating. Ice tours, yes. Public appearances, no doubt. Perhaps college, too.