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Trials and Tribulations

The U.S. nationals were replete with fine skating, but the show was stolen by the absent Michelle Kwan, who won a controversial berth on the Olympic team, despite not being healthy enough to defend her title

To the surprise of no one, nine-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan was named to the Olympic figure skating team last Saturday night despite missing the 2006 nationals, which were held last week at the Savvis Center in St. Louis. The decision by the U.S. Figure Skating Association to give Kwan a free pass to her third Olympics overshadowed what in other ways was a compelling event. ¶ The U.S. men, led by the flamboyant three-peat champion, Johnny Weir, for once outshone the women. Weir, 21, Evan Lysacek, 20, and Matt Savoie, 25, delivered performances that might be medalworthy if they can repeat them next month in Turin. Pairs skaters John Baldwin and Rena Inoue landed the first throw triple Axel in competition, which propelled them to their second national title. Ice dancers Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin showed, two weeks after the Canadian-born Belbin was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, that they're at peak form and ready to vie for America's first Olympic title in their discipline. And 21-year-old Sasha Cohen, who had finished second to Kwan four times in the women's event, finally got to see how she looked in gold. Cohen was much the best skater in a weak women's field, beating 16-year-olds Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes. Assuming that Kwan proves her fitness to a five-member panel from the USFSA in a Jan. 27 monitoring session, she, Cohen and Meissner, the nationals runner-up, will represent the U.S. in Turin. Hughes will be the odd woman out.

It's a bad business, this granting of Olympic skating berths, and no one seemed particularly comfortable with the decision in Kwan's favor. The nationals are widely considered the Olympic qualifier, but USFSA rules state that only the first-place finisher in each event is guaranteed a spot on the team. In rare cases an athlete can petition his or her way into the Games. Nancy Kerrigan was granted a berth in 1994 after being thwacked in the knee at the nationals by associates of Tonya Harding. With Kerrigan unable to defend her crown, Harding won that fateful competition in Detroit and Kwan, then 13 years old, finished second. Kwan lost her spot on the Olympic team when Kerrigan's petition was approved, and Kerrigan went on to win silver in Lillehammer.

Kwan referred to that incident on Saturday night as she expressed empathy for the plight of Hughes, whose dream of following her sister, 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes, to the Olympics was dashed. The vote by the USFSA's International Committee giving Kwan the nod over Hughes wasn't close (20--3), but that didn't make it any less ironic. Sarah Hughes, like Emily, came in third at the U.S. nationals before the Salt Lake City Games. She, too, was 16. She, too, was considered too young, too inexperienced, too unpolished to beat the likes of Kwan, Cohen and Russia's Irina Slutskaya. Could lightning have been caught in a bottle by a second Hughes girl? It looks as though we'll never know.

In truth the Kerrigan petition in 1994 and the petition filed by Kwan in 2006 have little in common. Kerrigan, in top form at the time of her attack, was the victim of a premeditated assault by associates of another competitor. Kwan's assailants are known to all athletes near the ends of their careers: injury and age.

Figure skating is grueling on the body. The endless jumping and the hard landings--always on the same foot--lead to foot, leg and hip injuries. The contortions required for spirals and spins are murder on the back muscles and the spine. Even before a groin injury sidelined Kwan on Dec. 17, she'd been unable to compete this season (except in a cheesy viewer-judged made-for-TV event on Dec. 11, in which she failed to land a single triple jump) because of a strained ligament in her right hip. Her last Olympic-style event was the 2005 world championships, 10 months ago, at which she finished fourth, the first time in a decade that she hadn't won a medal.

Her extraordinary career--she is a five-time world champion and has won a silver and a bronze medal at the Olympics--has been winding down for several years, and the new, more demanding Code of Points scoring system has sped up the process. Kwan hasn't blamed her recent injuries on the new system, which rewards a skater's flexibility and has forced competitors to perform more high-degree-of-difficulty elements, but other veteran skaters have struggled to adapt to it. Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss, for example, both failed to make the U.S. men's Olympic team for Turin. The times, and the guard, they are a-changin'.

Which is as it should be. The Olympics, with their promise of faster, higher, stronger, are about the future, not the past. The last two Olympic women's skating champions were 15-year-old Tara Lipinski and 16-year-old Sarah Hughes. The best skater in the world this season has been 15-year-old Mao Asada of Japan, who is three months too young to compete in Turin. Kwan, who is, after all, only 25, might best them all this year. But she should have gone through the same trials as everyone else. The Olympics are not a reward for lifetime achievement.

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Photographs by David E. Klutho


From left: Weir took his third men's title, while Cohen, Meissner and Hughes skated 1-2-3 in the women's event.




Kwan must be fit to skate by Jan. 27.