Kwan-tum leapsWOULD someone please give Michelle Kwan a gold medal so she can get on with her life?
2002 likely marks Michelle's last
bid for Olympic gold and local
ice skaters discuss her chances
By Scott Vogel
The above thought, or words to that effect, has been rolling around in my brain for the last few months as I've anxiously awaited yet another season of sequins and smiles to commence. I'm talking, of course, about the national figure skating championships, which are going on this week, and specifically Kwan's attempt to defend her title for what I believe is the 73rd time.
Actually, it's becoming difficult to imagine a time before Michelle Kwan skated, a lawless era -- let's call it B.M. -- when twirling pixies were expected to evince either grace or athleticism but not both, and in any case their careers could come to a crashing halt at any moment, thanks to Tonya Harding and her club-wielding henchmen.
Since then we've thrilled, then enjoyed, then finally endured one perfect program after another from Michelle, marveling at the consistency of both her jumps and hair as the years progressed, the perfect triple lutz an apropos complement to the perfect bun. When Tara Lipinski edged Kwan for the gold medal in Nagano, it was as if the results were reversed. Lipinski leapt about like the child she was while Kwan, even in defeat, comported herself like a champion, all grace and dignity.
But things are different of late. For one thing there's the hair, the bun now gone, replaced by a vampish, spiky 'do that recalls the last concert tour of Joan Jett. For another, the legendary consistency seems to have vanished. Kwan appeared wobbly during autumn's Grand Prix events, even -- gasp! -- falling to the ice on a few occasions.
Perhaps most significant, in October Kwan fired her longtime coach Frank Carroll, a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi of the ice whom she summarily dismissed without explanation. And now, with what in all likelihood is her last Olympic Games rapidly approaching, Kwan trains alone, the Salt Lake landscape no doubt appearing differently to her now 21-year-old eyes.
For some expert opinion on her chances this winter, we consulted the denizens of that other Salt Lake -- this one the Boulevard -- where Ice Palace Hawaii is found.
"She has all the aspects that you want to see in a champion," said T.C. Bartlett, one of the coaches who teaches at the Halawa rink. "You have speed into your jumps, long flowing edges, graceful arms and graceful positions, strength and power. Some have strength and no artistic, whereas Michelle has everything."
But Bartlett, who coaches both dance and freestyle skaters at the Hawaii Figure Skating Club, knows that Kwan is far from invulnerable. And if she stumbles, a new queen of the ice could well be crowned Saturday night. Among the women to watch, he said, is Angela Nikodinov, another California skater who's "really great and has never really gotten the marks she deserves," and Sarah Hughes, a 16-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., who defeated Kwan at Skate Canada in November. (And in a move that's certain to rock the skating world, Nikodinov has just announced that she's working with a new coach. You guessed it: Frank Carroll.)
Here's a viewer's guide to this week's National Figure Skating Championships, in which Michelle Kwan will pursue her sixth national title:
When to watch
Today: 7 p.m., KITV/ABC; men's final
Tomorrow: 4 p.m., ESPN; ladies and pairs short programs
Saturday: 6 p.m., ABC Family Channel; ladies final and pairs final
"And watch out for Sasha Cohen," Bartlett warned, speaking of the 17-year-old who may perform a quadruple salchow during Saturday's long program. If she completes the impossibly difficult four-revolution jump, Cohen will become the first woman in the world to land the maneuver cleanly in competition.
"Cohen's skating is unbelievable," agreed Tejani Diaz, 18, a Hawaii skater who is currently a freshman at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "She's an awesome jumper, skates really fast and always points her toes, like a ballerina dancer."
Diaz had the good fortune of attending Skate America this past fall, a competition held in her adopted hometown, a happy coincidence that afforded her an up-close and personal look at some of her idols in figure skating's elite class. And though the experience was unavoidably disillusioning ("I learned a lot of things I wouldn't want to tell you"), she also came face to face with one of the most controversial aspects of the sport: judging. It was a doubly important lesson for Diaz, who hopes one day to be a judge herself.
"At Skate America I really thought Sarah Hughes should have won," she said, echoing an opinion shared by many others in the skating world. "But it seems like Michelle Kwan still wins a lot of the time because she's Michelle Kwan." And while that's begun to change of late, Kwan remains the odds-on favorite to capture yet another national title, which is another way of saying that no one really knows what's going to happen this weekend.
"If she's consistent, if she lands everything, then she'll win," said Diaz. "But if not, she leaves the door open, as they say."
Whatever the outcome, one thing's for certain. As the excitement builds toward Salt Lake, America's first Winter Olympic Games since 1980, you can expect a similar buzz of activity among T.C. Bartlett's students at Hawaii's Salt Lake. In fact, the rink always sees a surge in skating interest after major competitions.
"Every year, they're eager to watch nationals to see which skaters improved and who's coming up from behind," said Bartlett, adding that the fun is tinged with Schadenfreude: "They love it when the elite skaters make mistakes, because it makes them human."
And if it's tough for fans to admit their humanness, imagine how difficult it must be for the skaters themselves, who expect their perfection to continue in freeze-dried perpetuity. But life catches up to them, too. Here's hoping that Kwan et al. will discover this sobering fact in time to make an exit from the ice with the same grace they once entered it.
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