Sunday, January 16, 2005

Michelle and the meaning of life

Those that know me know that January and March are important months to me. Not only are they playoff months for football and college basketball, they are also important months in the figure skating season. If you are American, they are THE important months.

January is the US Nationals and March is the World's in which one skater in each discipline receives a piece of hardware that says that "All of that hard work paid off. I am the best at this moment. Or at least until the next 16 year old comes along." I watch all with equal zeal and have been known to use similar language when watching either the final four of college basketball or the long program of figure skating.

Michelle Kwan, who in the amateur ranks is consider an elderstateswoman at 24, won her 9th national title. From 1996-2005, she has accumulated 9 titles. Nine first place titles that say she is the best female skater in the United States.

Name a sports team, professional or college, in recent memory (besides the Yankees or the truly underrepresented women's college basketball team, the women's professional soccer team and tennis player Steffi Graff) that accomplished as much in over ten years. Especially in a sport that seems to not want you around once you hit any age of legal consent. Michelle, at 24, is still at the top of her game.

At times, she was challenged. The only thing she does not have is an Olympic gold medal, which is a tough situation for a competitor of her calibre to be reconciled with, especially since in both of her Olympic showings she was only a triple jump away from the gold medal. This hole in her resume seems to be the reason she has kept her amateur status. There are great skaters that have not medaled, let alone won gold at the Olympics. Kurt Browning is one name that comes to mind. He was a 4 time World Champion and he, was the one actually performed the first quad jump. Albertville and Lillehammer were supposed to be his years and unfortunately, it just didn't work out. He has gone one to a wonderful professional career where he has re-invented what is possible in men's skating. Yuka Sato, who competed in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics that Michelle could only attend as alternate because she was not old enough to compete, went on to win the Worlds in 1994 and have a fruitful professional career which includes pairs skating with her husband Jason Dunjen.

The huge challenge for Michelle has been not only to be motivated enough to stay in the game of amateur skating but also to take positive risks that would allow her to grow as a skater and artist. The women in the senior's are pushing again. They are upping their difficulty in jumps while still maintaining requsite artistry that is expected of the women.

Probably the best advice that Michelle has probably even been given came from of all people, former Utah Jazz and still LA Laker, Karl Malone. People who know me, know that he is not one of my favorite people. There are definitely players that come before him that invoke particular loathing from me-former Houston Rocket and Laker Robert Horry is at the head of the list. Malone told Michelle basically that she can't sit on the fence. If she wants the gold medal, she has to be serious about it and prepare for it every day. There can be no doubt. He delivered this advice to her during one of those stupid ABC Sports segments where they were trying to market that they carry both skating and the NBA and that both were cool. I largely ignored it until he gave her his "pearl of wisdom." The earth I suppose stood still. It was a little like listening to the small segments they run during "The Apprentice" where Trump talks about success and preparedness and but for the fact that it is coming from a living cartoon, it actually is pretty sound advice.
I think that the Michelle I saw at the US Nationals last night is a more focused Michelle that does not take anything for granted and that took Malone's advice to heart. I don't think she ever did take anything for granted. She just really never had anyone for long periods of her career that could push her in any real way. She had to push herself, which is good but imagine the 80s NBA scene without Bird and Magic or Kareem or Parrish. People might point to Irina Slutskaya but, as much as I love Irina, she was and still is a very strong technical skater but until recently exceedingly weak in her artistry. She is leagues better these days but Michelle still trumps her. Sasha Cohen, who resides somewhere next to Karl Malone in my food chain of "Can't Stand you At All" Land, has all the talent in the world and at one time all of the arrogance that went with it. She hasn't delivered. Part of me hopes that she won't long enough to let Michelle win number 10 and a gold medal. That's not a realistic hope. Honestly too, I think Michelle keeping Sasha in the back of her head is good for her. Keeps her sharp.

What does Michelle's win mean for us mere mortals? If there is something you want, go for it. There is no sitting on the fence. Hard work, consistency, and inner pride will carry you a long way. Talent is good. Experience is and talent is better.

It also doesn't hurt when you rival puts her hand down on a triple lutz.

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