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Hail and farewell, Michelle, a wider world awaits

July 31, 2009 |  3:46 pm

It was hardly a surprise when Michelle Kwan announced Friday today that she would not compete in 2009-10, which means, of course, that her competitive figure skating days are over.

Kwan2 Kwan, 29, will move on with her life by enrolling this fall at the renowned Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she will seek a master's degree in international affairs.

That intellectual enhancement is fitting for a Chinese American from Southern California who competed on a global stage but whose vistas once were circumscribed by ice rinks and hotels in the many countries where she skated. Since she left competitive skating at the 2006 Turin Olympics, Kwan's world view has dramatically widened through her role as a public diplomacy envoy for the State Department and her studies at Denver University, where she received a bachelor's in international studies this May.

As Kwan seizes her future, the best way for me to assess her past is something I already wrote.

Given the uncertainty over her physical condition as she prepared for the 2006 Olympics, I had prepared a story summing up her career to appear either after the Winter Games skating ended or any time before that if circumstances dictated.

That is what happened, as pain in her groin forced Kwan to withdraw before the competition.

The story in question was published Feb. 13, 2006. I reread it after receiving Kwan's statement from U.S  Figure Skating and decided the old story would be the best valedictory for the sporting phase of her life.

You can read it after the jump:

KWAN SWAN SONG

An injury ends her quest for gold, but the skating great leaves a gilded legacy

Turin, Italy -- Barring a remarkable comeback, Michelle Kwan will go down in history as the greatest figure skater never to have won an Olympic gold medal.

Even more remarkable is that Kwan has not needed that Olympic title to become the most popular and beloved skater the United States has ever seen.

"People just love her," said two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt of Germany. "And they are right. They should love her."

In announcing Sunday that pain in her right groin will keep her from trying to skate a third Olympics, Kwan, 25, probably has ended a competitive career in which she dominated her sport longer than any other singles skater since World War II.

"It has always been a dream to win the Olympics," Kwan said, breaking into tears. "My parents . . . arrived last night and want me to be happy and for their baby to win gold, have her dreams come true.

"I have my tried my hardest. If I don't win the gold, it's OK. I've had a great career. I've been very lucky."

And her place in history is secure.

"Winning an Olympic gold medal is a very important part of a skater's legacy, and always will be," said 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano. "But Michelle's legacy still is incomparable. Her consistency and great level of artistry and athletic ability set her apart.

"If people take time to look at her body of work, that equalizes the one thing she doesn't have."

That body of work includes nine U.S. championships, five world titles and two Olympic medals, silver and bronze. Only Sonja Henie of Norway, with 10, won more world titles. Kwan's nine world medals, including three silvers and a bronze, are three more than any other U.S. skater has won.

Yet those achievements cannot begin to explain why Kwan occupies such a special place not only in her sport's history but also in the hearts of rivals, fans and coaches.

"Seldom has there been a skater that, upon the mere mention of her name, fans would almost swoon," said Morry Stillwell, former president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Kwan3 "She has the largest domestic fan base of any skater ever," said John Nicks, coach of reigning national champion and Olympic medal contender Sasha Cohen.

Longevity at the top during an era when the sport received unprecedented media coverage meant more people were exposed to Kwan's style and personality than to any skater before her. The people obviously liked what they saw, as reflected by the sponsors who wished upon her star.

"When I think of Michelle, I think of her as a legend in her own time," said Frank Carroll, who coached Kwan from 1992 through 2001.

A statue Kwan created for a Disney charity auction drew a higher price than those created by Tom Hanks, Shaquille O'Neal, Ben Affleck, John Travolta and Andre Agassi.

Talking about the recent decline in ratings for televised figure skating, sports TV guru Eddie Einhorn said, "Without Kwan, we would have been dead by now."

"She inspired me every day, and not only on the ice," said Sarah Hughes, who upset Kwan to win the 2002 Olympic gold medal. "I have admired Michelle's skating since I was 10 years old.

"A lot of times people aren't really how they seem on TV. Michelle is an exception. The way she comes across from afar--genuine, kind, sophisticated and classy--is just the way she is in person."

Those qualities were never more evident than in her Olympic disappointments.

Heavily favored in 1998, she skated exceptionally well at the Nagano Winter Games--better, at the time, than any winning performance in Olympic history except the one by compatriot Tara Lipinski that won the gold. Co-favorite with Russia's Irina Slutskaya in 2002, Kwan let the gold slip away with two big errors in the free skate.

Both times Kwan graciously praised the winners and moved on. Whatever regrets may have haunted her she kept to herself.

If at times her quest for gold seemed as obsessively futile as Ahab's chase of Moby Dick, the difference is Kwan always seemed to be having a whale of a time--while earning an estimated $20 million from it.

"She has always conducted herself in such a way that she has earned the respect of her peers and anyone who has ever watched figure skating," said Todd Eldredge, six-time U.S. champion and 1996 world champion. "Even though she hasn't won an Olympic gold medal, she can be regarded as the best-ever women's skater."

Kwan unquestionably belongs on the short list of the greatest in history, along with Witt; three-time Olympic champion Henie; and U.S. women Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss, each of whom won Olympic gold and silver medals, and Peggy Fleming, the 1968 Olympic champion, whose aura transcended her triumph.

Comparing them is nearly impossible because of rules differences from era to era. But simply: Kwan beat more good skaters from more countries for a longer time than anyone else.

"What I like is that she has been always a fighter," Witt said. "There have been so many young skaters coming and going, winning the Olympics and leaving. She kept defending her titles and still setting goals for herself, which I think is great. She always could have taken the easy way, and she never did."

In 2001, when a resolute Kwan narrowly beat Slutskaya for the world title for the second straight year, French figure skating coach Annick Gailhaguet called Kwan the greatest skater of the previous 50 years but thought she had stagnated.

"Skating is not only speed or jumps or choreography," Gailhaguet said. "It is all those qualities together. Nobody ever had all those qualities, but the one who has the most is Michelle.

"Everything she does in the skating part is perfect--the quality of the edges, the positions of her body, arms and head, her line, her lightness, the technique on her jumps.

"But I would like to see her do something completely different in her programs. She changes the music, but it's the same program. Except for that, she is the best skater our sport has ever had."

Gailhaguet's opinion had become more widespread since the 2002 Olympics, when Kwan cut back technically and competitively, doing just seven Olympic-style competitions over the last four seasons.

The last two seasons, Kwan's desire to curtail the physical demands on her body ran headlong into the increased technical demands of the new judging system. Kwan competed just once under the new system, at the 2005 world championships, where her fourth-place finish left her without a medal for the first time since 1995, when she was 14.

The peak of her career was from 1996 through 2001, a span longer than the entire careers of most skaters. But Kwan won her fifth world championship and four more U.S. titles after that. She has the rare distinction of being the fourth-youngest and 10th-oldest U.S. champion in history.

Kwan was only 13 when she was named an alternate to the 1994 U.S. Olympic team. Had the nation earned its customary three women's spots in the Olympic field instead of the two it had for 1994, she already would have competed in three Winter Games.

A year earlier, at 12, Kwan had been the youngest senior-level competitor in 20 years at the U.S. championships, finishing sixth.

"It's kind of fun skating with the older people," Kwan said then of contenders Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. "They've been around for a couple hundred years. I'm just starting to rise."

Within six months, Kwan had received a lengthy standing ovation from the largest crowd ever to see a figure skating competition as she won the 1993 Olympic Festival before 25,691 in San Antonio. "Today she became a star," Heiss said.

At the 1996 worlds, the 15-year-old Kwan gave what Boitano calls "her breakthrough performance." Skating to music from Richard Strauss' opera "Salome," Kwan not only embodied the biblical temptress for four minutes but also added a triple jump in the final seconds of the free skate that likely won her the title over an equally dazzling performance by defending champion Lu Chen of China.

Joe Inman was moved to tears by Kwan's performance at the 1998 U.S. championships, when he was among the judges who rained perfect scores on her artistic impression (15 out of 18) in the short and long programs.

"Michelle has given many terrific moments to the sport/art of ice skating," Inman said. "She brought many people into this genre by giving us her love of the sport and projecting to us as a true professional. She has proven herself to be a champion of champions."

Photos, from top: Michelle Kwan holds up nine fingers after winning her ninth U.S. title; Kwan at a promotional event for the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. Credits, from top: Don Ryan / Associated Press; Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times 

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