“They want me to be happy, for their baby to win gold,” Kwan said, of her parents.
That won’t happen now, ever. She probably shouldn’t have been here in the first place, but then Kwan wanted to believe she could pull this off, that she could recover just well enough to patch together two more solid programs. She wouldn’t get that gold, never will now, and up there on the stage at the press conference it was time to put the career of this amazing figure skater in perspective.
And that’s where Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, went way, way overboard.
“Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that’s ever performed for the USOC,” he said. “She’s been a leader. She’s gracious. She’s somebody who cares for so many youngsters that are training in our country. And she’s a real loss, not only to the USOC, but to the United States of America. And I think to the world.”
The world doesn’t concern itself much with Kwan, who would be the first to admit as much. And it is not hard to think of a many other U.S. Olympians who have surpassed Kwan’s achievements inside the five-ring circus. You can start with Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Eric Heiden, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Michael Phelps, Mary Lou Retton, the 1980 hockey team.
You can keep naming names, all you want, because the U.S. had captured 69 gold medals in the Winter Olympics before Turin, and Kwan won none of them.
It is not so easy to categorize Kwan, 25, who dominated her sport for a decade without winning the big one. You can’t compare her to Ernie Banks or Patrick Ewing, because Kwan is in an individual sport that doesn’t entail the help or hindrance of teammates. She has those five world championships and nine U.S. titles, which would suggest a dynasty. These are major titles, so Kwan is by no means the Pam Shriver of figure skating. But then she isn’t quite the queen, either, without the official Olympic coronation.
And that’s all the shots you get in this fickle, pixie sport. Kwan probably knew that, somewhere deep inside, when she waved from the podium with her bronze medal in 2002.
She tried to keep going, and you have to give her great credit for that. But the whole sport changed, the ice wobbled beneath her. Younger skaters brought new combinations, triple axels and even quads to the table. The 6.0 scoring system that was so kind to Kwan over the years suddenly became something complicated and demanding. “A lot of math,” she called it. Kwan wasn’t pleased, after finishing fourth last year at worlds. She went back to the drawing board, fiddled with her elements, hoping to make them more difficult.
So it was time to quit, whether or not there was a groin problem. Kwan wasn’t going to win in Turin. She didn’t have the jumps.
She said yesterday she didn’t want to be “a distraction,” here at the Olympics, though in the end that was all she was. One figure skater leaves, another arrives. Emily Hughes, 17, is just starting out. She’s healthy, free from the burdens of expectation. She’s toughening up her routines. If she finishes eighth, she’ll be thrilled.
“Michelle is very gracious, very humble,” Emily Hughes said.
She finally admitted something, though.
“If I don’t win gold, it’s OK,” Kwan said. “I’ve had a great career. This is the sport, and it’s beautiful.”