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Friday, January 14, 2005 - Page updated at 05:06 P.M.

Kwan has a presence rare in American sport

Ron Judd / Times staff columnist

Enlarge this photoDEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Michelle Kwan slides across the ice in her signature move during yesterday's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Portland, OR.

PORTLAND — Try to imagine the sport without her.

That's what it takes to measure the impact crater, immeasurably deep and a decade wide, left on figure skating by Michelle Kwan.

Imagine Portland this week without her quest to put it all together, one last time, and lay claim to the crown of the greatest American woman ever to strap on skates.

Kwan, leading after last night's short program, is after her eighth U.S. title in a row — her ninth overall, tying her with Maribel Vinson, who won her first when Calvin Coolidge was president.

That's a good story on its own. But the matching of musty records does little to bring to life what can only be described as a presence, on the ice and off, that American sport has rarely seen.

When Kwan stepped to center ice to perform her short program in Portland for the first time this week, a buzz went through a crowd that had been listless and bored. Kids squirmed to the fronts of their seats in the Rose Garden. Parents readied cameras. The meeting came to order.

Tonight

U.S. Figure Skating Championships:

Pairs finals, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2 (delayed)

True fans of the sport — everyone who can look beyond the costumes, makeup, tears, politics and silliness and see the underlying mix of power, grace, stamina and nerve — sat back and savored the coming 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

Most skaters, even at this level, visibly strain, sweat and toil to put the final touch of perfection on a program. Kwan simply steps on the ice, opens some sort of emotional spigot and lets hers flow.

The world has seen the magic pour through five World Championship titles. The Olympic Games have seen it twice, with stunning short programs and not-quite-good-enough free skates in Nagano, Japan, and Salt Lake City. Through an unmatched career in which she has won an unprecedented 42 championships, Kwan has looked at the scoreboard and seen 53 perfect scores of 6.0.

The magic is still there. It was unleashed again here this week, when Kwan, halfway through her short program, assumed flight position for her trademark spiral sequence — a graceful, arms-spread, single-footed glide that sums up a lifetime of striving for perfection in one inspired pose.

It sounds silly to say this, because the world's great athletes, as a general rule, do not arrive at arenas and dress themselves in Vera Wang. But that Kwan spiral, splayed out in front of you, is breathtaking — a signature as original and sweet as any in sport.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships


Rose Garden, Portland

The event: The national figure-skating championships is the world's largest single skating competition, drawing as many as 150,000 spectators to a week-long program. It's a major launching point for the 2006 Winter Olympics 13 months from now in Turin, Italy.

Reigning champs: Michelle Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist, has won the ladies' championship eight times, including seven in a row. Johnny Weir will be defending his first U.S. title.

Schedule highlights:

Tonight: Pairs finals. TV: 7:30 p.m. (delayed), ESPN2.

Tomorrow: Men's and ladies' free skate. TV: 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., Ch. 4.

Sunday: Free-skate exhibition.

When she finished it this time, the crowd erupted.

The kicker: This wasn't even a competition. It was practice — a full day before Kwan skated the real thing last night, before a bigger crowd, under more pressure.

Show us another athlete — any sport, any time, any place — who draws standing ovations for warmups. Muhammad Ali, maybe.

Kwan skated in her first national championship in 1993, as a 12-year-old. She has graced center ice of amateur sport for so long that it's easy to think of her as a grizzled veteran. But after half a life on medals stands, she's only 24.

Think back over the past decade and remember what Kwan has done — and more important, has not. She has never been busted for shoplifting or DUI. Never uttered a foul word in frustration. Never spat on a sidewalk, photographer, official or fan.

She never once shrank from a burdensome role-model mantle thrust upon her at entirely too young an age.

Imagine the sport without her.

Kwan's short program last night was a snapshot of grace. It flirted with perfection, earning three perfect 6.0s for presentation and bringing a Rose Garden crowd, again, to its feet. Tomorrow's free-skate confrontation against never-quite-champion Sasha Cohen, 20, is Kwan's to lose.

Without her, what does U.S. Figure Skating have to offer up this week?

A healthy battle for the men's crown between two less-than-household names, with quad-jumping Salt Lake bronze medalist Timothy Goebel duking it out with defending U.S. champ Johnny Weir. Goebel and Weir were 1-2 after last night's short program.

A sterling ice-dance couple, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who can't compete for the United States in the Olympics because Belbin was born in Canada.

In a sport with a whole lot of athletes who work really hard to achieve a level of greatness, only one can now truly claim it.

For Kwan, a ninth title tomorrow would be icing atop icing on the career cake.


DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Matthew Savoie skated clean in the men's short program last night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Portland, and was in fourth place.

She could walk away with a clean conscience and a legitimate claim to be the best amateur skater the world has ever seen. She could leave knowing she gave it her best shot, then three years more.

Here's hoping not.

Justly or unjustly, the final measure of greatness for U.S. figure skaters has always been the Olympic trophy case. Beneath the flame, Kwan has always come up one step short of the gold.

She has yet to commit to the Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, which start in 13 months. Yet to decide, perhaps, whether the new scoring system she will face for the first time at the World Championships in Moscow in March will aid her quest.

But her sport needs her, as much as ever.

If she wins here, her place in history is set. Michelle Kwan would have nothing left to prove to anyone.

Except, we can only hope, herself.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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