Sunday, March 20, 2005

Michelle Kwan's Olympic run revisited

I have always loved Michelle Kwan. I remember her as the talented 14 year old that turned more than a few heads at the 1994 US Nationals and that had not a certain crowbar incident took place, she definitely would have been the revelation of the event. She also would have gone to the Olympics since the rule regarding age had not been established yet.

Jump forward to 1998. Michelle had a pretty good season. She injured her foot but she was still solid and confident. She also had competition on the homefront. Tara Lipinski, who set the juniors' on fire does the same at the senior level. She took the gold in the 1997 World's and continuously nips at Michelle's heels until she gets in her Nagano. The difference of a triple-triple combination was the difference between Michelle getting the Olympic gold. She won the silver for her efforts and vowed to get the gold in Salt Lake City.

Jump forward to 2002. Michelle's seasons leading into these Olympic were still fairly good. She lost the gold only once at World's. The year was 1999 and the flu all but assured her that she was going to be off her game. The freaky thing about that competition was that Michelle could have still mathematically won-had Maria Butyrskya had a disastrous skate (which was not out of the question) or if someone beat Maria in the free skate. Unfortunately for Michelle, Maria with gritted teeth (and perhaps sensing that I would have flown to Helsinki and kicked her butt if she messed up) and nerves in check completed a very good free skate. The person that could have beaten Maria to allow Michelle to win that year was a skater by the name of Tatiana Malinina. She was a few months younger than Maria (both were 26) and had she not fallen, her artistic score may have beaten Maria's and Michelle would have won through the complicated mathematical computations that the ISU uses to determine such things.

While Michelle settled for the silver at Helsinki that year, but she would go onto win gold each year after that.

Besides 2002 being an Olympic year, Michelle was talked about that season because she and her longtime coach Frank Carroll split. Many said that this spelled DOOM in regards to Michelle's chances of winning the gold in Salt Lake. Amidst the buzz, I tended to fall on the side of the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, now sports commentator Scott Hamilton when he said that "Frank did all that he could do for her. It was up to Michelle to put it into practice."

Michelle as we all know, won the bronze. She fell in her free skate. The jump she fell on was the triple flip, which seems to be her bete noir. Sarah Hughes had the skate of her life and the Eastern bloc judges, apparently showing that math is a terrible thing to waste, forgot about Sarah's scores when they conspired to weight Irina Slutskaya's scores such that she would win the free skate and (so they thought) the gold medal. The Russian federation protested a bit about Sarah's win until they probably realized that in light of the debacle of the pairs' judging and the fact that they would have to explain how exactly Irina was screwed, they opted to leave it alone and award her a gold medal when she returned to Russia.
This was a medal made of real gold, not the composite that makes up the Olympic gold medals or so they (the Russian Federation) was so found of were saying at the time.
Michelle vowed again to work hard and come back to the Olympics and win the gold.

Flash to 2005.

Michelle is now considered the elderstateswoman of her sport with a lot to prove. She chose a shortened schedule a la Todd Eldredge, but unlike Todd who still particpated in the Grand Prix series and kept up with amateur skatings changes and adapted as he could, Michelle chose only to compete in the USA National Championships and Worlds.

Between 2002 and 2005, Michelle compiled the following scorecard:
-Tied Maribel Vinson Owens' record of 9 US Championships, which was good.
-Won one more gold at Worlds in 2003, which was also good.
-After a rough competition in 2004 and managed to walk away with the bronze, which was less good.
-Came away with bupkis (nothing) in the 2005 Worlds which saw an ill Irina Slutskaya win the gold with no help from the judges. (In fact, they did not think that she would do much).

After the most disappointing season of her recent career and currently combating injuries, mid 20-Something Michelle Kwan will compete for the chance to go to the 2006 Olympics in Turino, Italy against a field of youngesters who are a bit more technically sound and that are well...younger.

Karl Malone told Michelle that she needed to be serious and do the work if she meant to win the gold in 2006. There are times where it looks like she took the talk to heart and then there are times like last season where you wonder.

I am less secure in the thought that Michelle will win gold this time around. The odds are very much against her this time. However, much like 2002, the only person that can take the gold away from Michelle is Michelle. I will be watching the US Nationals with great interest.

I found the spot where Karl Malone and Michelle Kwan talked about winning to be very interesting. There are lessons that coaches and players of other sports can teach to each other.

Will Michelle find as the late coach NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano like to call, that one last hat trick to win her 10th US National Championship (and further cement her legend in US Figure Skating) and the gold in Turino? Will she take to heart the sentiment of Marta Karolyi, who said, "this is a world for the tough" and of University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson who told his 1997 NCAA Championship team-a team no one saw beating the invincible University of Kentucky Wildcats-that only "the tough survive"? Will she remember Jud Heathcoate's instruction that it is not enough to have talent but that you have to perform? (His 1979 Michigan State Spartans, led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson definitely performed).

In figure skating's amateur ranks, 26 is the age at which most women retire. Some retire sooner and others hang in to complete unfinished business. Sometimes, the business goes unfinished.

Will Michelle emerge from her quest for the one "hole" in her resume? Who knows? If she does fall short, the question she will ask herself is, "did I try my best and was I tough enough?"

If she can answer 'yes' to both, then she has nothing to be ashamed of. No one who can answer 'yes' to both question has anything to be ashamed of.

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