Kwan never golden, but sometimes transcendant

  • Mark Starr Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, November 21, 2009 11:56pm
  • SportsSports

At its best, there is no sport to rival figure skating for sheer elegance and beauty. But when those five Olympic rings begin to squeeze, it can turn downright ugly.

I’ve seen ladies leap with insouciance and land with incredulity on their butts, men endure face-plants into the ice, ladies dropped from on high by a wobbly partner, dancers’ legs sliced open by their partner’s blade.

But for one night — one night only — I saw perfection. Okay, maybe only eight of the nine judges held up the perfect 6.0 mark for artistry, but the crowd’s judgment — 18,000 folks in delirium — confirmed that we had witnessed something of unsurpassed beauty.

Skating to the celestial notes of “Lyra Angelica”, Michelle Kwan never appeared ice-bound, seemingly floating above it until she soared with unrestrained joy toward the heavens. Afterwards, the 17-year-old Kwan said the music made her think of angels and clouds … “that I’m free and I’m going to cloud nine.”

Indeed there was only one thing wrong with Kwan’s bravura performance: it happened in the wrong place — Philadelphia rather than Nagano, Japan — and at the wrong time — the Olympic Trials rather than the Olympics, which would be held a month later. To win the Olympic gold medal — to fulfill her dream of etching her name in skating history as a legend — Kwan would have to go to cloud nine one more time.

She didn’t make it up there, perhaps not even to cloud eight. Kwan didn’t skate badly in Nagano. Skaters have won Olympic gold with worse performances. But while she didn’t make a single major error, caution ruled the night. Kwan didn’t soar, didn’t radiate joy and never left us breathless. Still, having already won the short program, she may have figured a competent skate would be enough to claim the gold.

What she didn’t figure on was 15-year-old Tara Lipinski hitting the ice like a house on fire. If Kwan was a throwback to the days when artistry was paramount, Lipinski was a harbinger of a new era where artistry took a back seat while jumps ruled the sport.

When Lipinski hit her trademark triple loop-triple loop combination, her smile was incandescent. Near the end of her program, Tara unleashed another dazzling, three-jump combination. And after her final spin, even before the crowd had erupted in tribute, Lipinski added a bravura bit of salesmanship. She raced across the ice at the judges, flashing a winner’s smile, her arms raised in triumph.

Six of the nine judges agreed. Kwan had to settle for silver and endure some relentless second-guessing. Lipinski had lived in the Olympic village, marched in Opening Ceremonies and fully engaged the Games. Kwan had isolated herself — all business, no play — as she had always done at competitions. Had Lipinski imbibed of the Olympic magic while Kwan had gone flat sitting in her hotel room?

That question would haunt Kwan over the next four years, during which she would win four more U.S. and three world crowns. Though she once again skated brilliantly at the U.S. championship, a month before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, this time nobody wrote odes to her performance. She hadn’t repeated her mistake, her fans said, of peaking too early.

Nor would Kwan make the mistake of keeping her distance from the Games. She stayed in the Olympic village (or at least had a cameo there), marched in Opening Ceremonies and was conspicuous cheering on the Americans at a hockey game.

In the end, it made no difference. Kwan would once again win the short program. And once again, a young and less ballyhooed skater — Sarah Hughes — would rise to the occasion with the skate of her life and seize the gold medal.

This time Kwan not only lost, she looked lost. She landed her combination jump on two feet, then later fell on a triple flip. Sitting stunned on the ice, disbelief crept in her eyes. By the time she found her feet, the energy had been sucked out of her body, the smile wiped off her face. This time Kwan’s consolation prize would be colored bronze.

Kwan made it back to the Olympics once again in 2006, but, due to injury, left Italy without competing. She would retire, a class act and indisputably the greatest skater of her generation, with nine national titles, five world championships — and those two Olympic heartbreakers.

So is Kwan that legend she dreamed of becoming as a young girl? Perhaps not by her golden standards. But what about by yours?

Mark Starr has been a national sports correspondent for Newsweek since 1982 and has attended 10 Olympics. Look for his columns each Sunday in The Herald leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

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