By Elena Vaitsekhovskaya
Michelle Kwan: A BITTER END
February 12 2006
Five-time World champion Michelle Kwan left Torino for the U.S. on February 12. The day before she appeared at the press conference where she announced her withdrawal from the Olympic Games due to injury.
Watching it happen was incredibly hard. Kwan was dressed in black, and perhaps only those who knew her best could understand the depth of her mourning: the skater never favored black.
Perhaps no one would ever understand why an athlete as unique as Kwan was dealt such a harsh deck of cards. Right now her story appears a bit symbolic: at her first Olympics in Lillehammer Kwan was preparing to skate but never got to go on the ice. At her last Olympics the story repeated itself.
In Lillehammer she was only 13 years old. A tiny child who looked unremarkable anywhere else transformed the moment her blades touched the ice.
"This was the first time I noticed Michelle," Tatiana Tarasova told me in Torino. "At one point she glided into a spiral - an element that most skaters treat as a rest break - and this spiral had so much power and passion trying to break out that it gave me the chills. Only the greatest have the gift of skating like this.
Around that time, a three-time Olympic champion Irina Rodnina who worked at International Skating Center at Lake Arrowhead told me, "when Kwan is practicing, it's hard to believe a human being is capable of working as hard she she does. We always thought that Russian skaters work harder than anyone else in the world. But compared to Kwan, anyone else is a hopeless lazybones.
Kwan won her first World championship in Edmonton in 1996, barely grabbing the victory from Lu Chen. The next year she placed below her fellow American Tara Lipinski. The defeat was not surprising: Kwan was dealing with growing pains. People who were around at the time said Kwan used to faint of hunger at her practice sessions in the U.S. trying to keep her weight under control. And even then she never stopped to work like mad.
In 1998 she won the Worlds again.
A month before her Worlds in 1998 she had to cope with her first Olympic tragedy. She came to Nagano as an undisputed favorite. A week before Kwan won the U.S. Nationals where her performance was called the best ever in ladies' skating. The judges agreed, awarding her 15 perfect 6.0 marks for long and short program combined. Several judges couldn't hold back tears.
The press conference Kwan and her coach Frank Carroll gave after the short program in Nagano became even more memorable to me than the ladies competition. The coach spoke at length about the art of skating in general, about his student's ability to hear the music and interpret the image; he joked that the winning short program cost him only $4.95 - this is what he paid for a discounted CD of Rachmaninoff. At the end, he added:
"We are not thinking about gold."
"We dream about it," Kwan breathed out in complete silence.
Perhaps it was in Nagano, where she couldn't win, that the first cracks began between the skater and her coach. Or perhaps it didn't happen until much later. One thing is obvious: during four years between Nagano and Salt Lake, their perfect union of mutual understanding suffered invisible damage.
I don't remember now when it happened, but at one event, where they spoke at a press conference after an imperfect skate, Carroll said again that sport is sport, and as far as he is concerned, everything is fine. Kwan pulled the mike toward her and raising her voice, blurted out, "nothing is fine. Nothing!."
They parted ways before Salt Lake City Olympics, when Kwan had two more World Champion crowns from 2000 and 2001. She also fired Lori Nichols who used to choreograph brilliantly beautiful routines for Michelle during her entire career. The reasons were easy to guess: perhaps at some point Kwan decided the people around her don't give her enough support. Therefore, working together just didn't make sense.
Kwan lost again in Salt Lake City.
In figure skating, it happens a lot that early in the free skate a skater falters on a jump that he or she considers particularly important, and they begin to chase that jump again and again, forgetting everything else, and most likely not getting the jump either. Kwan's decision to stay eligible for four more years resembled that race after the elusive Olympic gold. She worked with Scott Williams but left him after winning Worlds in Washington in 2003. She picked Rafael Arutunian as her new coach. Before the Olympic season, Kwan suddenly approached Tatiana Tarasova for help, and she agreed, saying, "when an athlete wants something THAT much, you just can't say no."
They worked together all summer long. One day, when Tarasova and Kwan were alone in the locker room, Kwan suddenly said:
"Perhaps it is weird and hard to explain, but I still want to compete. I don't believe that I will be able to find in any professional skating show that which was the meaning of my life for so many years. And I am afraid that my life will lose meaning."
Tarasova couldn't hold back tears when she heard that.
That summer, Kwan worked enormously hard. The new judging system was a big blow for her. Everything the skater learned to do over almost twenty years did not get even Level 2 of difficulty, as the first big competition showed. At the age when most people wrap up their careers Kwan had to re-learn many elements all over again.
She managed to do that. Prior to the beginning of the season Kwan often invited USFSA experts to attend her practices and they said the five-time world champion has no weak spots left in her skating.
And then she got injured and couldn't skate for several months.
She had health problems before. Her always unrelenting training habits and a long time in the cold resulted in arthrosis of her hip joints. The problem emerged for the first time in Dortmund two years ago - it happen during the time of acclimatization when any existing problems tend to become worse. Then it re-emerged in Moscow. All doctor's recommendations that had a chance of helping Kwan were confronted by strong denials of her mother, who said, "first, you have to have healthy children, and then you can go and take powerful drugs for as long as your heart desires."
All attempts to treat her arthrosis by acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine were in vain. These methods were simply not designed to fight pain that is so strong. Nor could they help the body that took so much beating.
In Torino her problems were aggravated. The Alpine climate often becomes dangerous for people with rheumatic conditions. Perhaps Kwan should have arrived to the games a bit earlier: a nine-hour time difference requires at least nine days to acclimate. Perhaps then Michelle could have adjusted well and under less pressure, and then could have built up her training intensity to the usual levels. But she ignored her pain and plunged into the games head first. She had trouble sleeping at night because she was in so much pain, but didn't even permit herself to think that she may not be able to hit the Olympic ice one more time.
The opening ceremony was the last straw. After a few hours in the cold Michelle understood it was all over.
She came to practice the next day, after another sleepless night. Through superhuman efforts, she prepared for a triple jump. She fell. She tried again and collapsed on the ice again. After the third unsuccessful try, she could barely glide off the ice. And next was her press conference.
On Monday morning I came to the press center and pulled up the Olympic database to print out Kwan's file. But the "participant bio" section did not list the name of the great skater any longer.