1:06 PM EST, January 27, 2012
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For several weeks before the 2006 Winter Olympics, I prepared a valedictory on Michelle Kwan's expecting the story to appear after she finished the free skate in Turin, Italy.
Instead, it made the Chicago Tribune the day before the competition began, which was one day after Kwan withdrew with a groin injury.
That meant she finished her career as the most decorated skater never to win an Olympic gold medal, a gap in her resume Kwan noted at the press conference when she discussed the withdrawal.
"It has always been a dream to win the Olympics," Kwan said then, 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."
As I wrote in that valedictory (click here for the entire story, contained in a Blog when she officially ruled out another Olympic try in 2010), Kwan did not need that Olympic title to become the most popular and beloved skater the United States has ever seen.
“Michelle's legacy still is incomparable,” said 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, who will introduce Kwan at her induction to the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Saturday night. “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."
I covered that entire body of work - the two Olympic medals, the five word titles, the nine U.S. titles, the dominance of the post-compulsory figures era in women’s skating. I have mentioned her in 507 Chicago Tribune stories; in 197 of those, her name was in the headline or opening paragraph.
Rather than write another to mark the hardly unexpected Hall of Fame honor, I have chosen to let Kwan speak for herself, just the way her skating did.
In the second of two parts, in answers to 10 questions, here is Kwan on Kwan:
(For part one, click here.)
6. Which rival impressed you most during your career?
Irina Slutskaya. We were representing (old rivals) Russia and the United States, and we came up at the same time. We were first (Kwan) and third (Slutskaya) at the World Juniors in 1994, and we had parallel careers all the way from 1994 to 2005/2006. We were both able to be very serious; in the locker room, there was always a very thick tension because we were so focused and in our zone. But we were able to be on tour together and joke around. We definitely rooted for one another. It was like, “Let the best person win.”
(NOTE: Slutskaya won two world titles, when Kwan finished second and fourth, and she finished second to Kwan three times at worlds and third, once. Slutskaya was fifth to Kwan’s second at the 1998 Olympics and second to Kwan’s third in 2002)
7.What is the greatest women's skating performance you ever have seen, live or on live television?
Oksana Baiul at the 1993 World Championships, when she came out of nowhere and lit the world on fire. She was 15, and it was so inspirational that she was able to win worlds at that age, and that motivated me. It was the way she performed. I remember Frank (Carroll, her longtime coach) came back from that worlds and said, “You’ve got to watch this girl.” She was able to make you forget it was a program with elements. It was such a performance, so much fun to watch, so much energy. Even her exhibition program, when she skated to Michael Jackson, I’ve never seen anything like it. I just wanted her to keep on skating.
(NOTE: In 1993, Baiul was the second youngest – to Sonie Henie – world champion in history. A year later, she became second youngest Olympic champion in history. Tara Lipinski then became youngest in both categories when she won the 1997 worlds and 1998 Olympics. Kwan won her first worlds at 15.)
8. What is the funniest thing that happened to you as a skater?
It was probably the world championships in Germany (2004) when I was warming up before the long program, and a guy came on the ice in a tutu. He could have picked a lot of skaters to get on the ice and do that with, and he picked me, which seemed kind of cool at first.
I remember people yelling and I was like, “What’s going on?" Then I saw him on the ice, and I thought about what happens if he has a gun. For a second, I thought I better get off the ice and run for my life. Then seeing him stagger around the ice, I realized if he had a gun he couldn’t aim it, or if he had a knife, he couldn’t get to me with it.
Looking back at the tapes and stuff, it’s not like football where (security) rushes the field. It was like, “How many security guards does it take to tackle somebody on the ice?”
It was the only time in history that happened in skating, right?
(NOTE: The intruder, wearing skates and ski goggles, jumped the rink boards and stripped to the waist to reveal the name of an Internet casino painted on his back and chest. He pulled a tutu over his tights and began to do a clown-like routine as Kwan briefly continued to warm up before it turned serious in her mind. More than a minute passed before anyone in the security force reacted at all to the intruder's presence on the ice. It eventually took five men in street shoes 40 seconds to herd him off. Kwan declined the offer of an ice resurface and competed after some minor debris had been removed. She said after finishing her heart began thumping wildly while she waited for security to apprehend the intruder. Kwan composed herself to skate flawlessly until doubling a final planned triple jump, a performance good enough for a bronze medal, her last of a U.S. record nine world medals.)
9. What is the one thing you will remember most about the sport?
To me, when people ask, “What was it like performing? What was it like competing?”, I remember the stillness on the ice while starting in front of that large crowd and then having it end with a standing ovation. I watch ballets, and I see the ballerina dance, and I stand and applaud, and I’m so excited. It’s like a roller-coaster ride for the ballerina or the skater until the end. I remember being that person, and I can still bring up those emotions. It’s one of those things not many people can experience.
10. What will be or already has been the lasting impact of skating on your life and post-skating career?
During the really intense moments, being able to remind yourself to breathe and take one thing at a time. You can’t completely compare them to other things – but in a presentation at school or traveling abroad and speaking to a big crowd, I could feel the butterflies and the same feelings I had in skating. It helps you cope with similar challenges.
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