Kwan Is Coming Back Around
Still Healing, Veteran Is Happy And Hopeful To Compete Again
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006; Page E03
FORT MYERS, Fla.
Michelle Kwan picked up a Styrofoam cup from the breakfast table laid out for the figure skaters preparing for an exhibition this weekend and poured herself a half-cup of coffee. Like the last time she did an interview, Kwan wore all black. But today, zippered up in a sweat suit, she settled into a padded chair and made it clear her clothing didn't match her mood.
Unlike during a somber February news conference when she announced she was dropping out of the Olympic figure skating competition, Kwan talked hopefully about skating competitively again and volunteered a story: Her older brother Ron and sister Karen attended the Olympic women's free skate final while Kwan watched at home on television.
Kwan's siblings had ordered tickets long in advance. Ron had been traveling through Europe on a trip that concluded in Italy. Karen had reserved an apartment in the city. They decided to go, even without their little sister on the program. Moments after the free skate had ended, Karen ran out to the concourse and dialed Michelle's number on her cellphone.
Michelle, who had been watching the event at her home in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., with her parents, heard the din of the crowd in the background, the rumble of the announcer's voice.
"You should be here," Karen said.
Kwan, of course, had been there, but she left amid tears, camera flashes, forlorn Olympic officials and some criticism after an agonized, fitful quest to compete. But all of a sudden, it was as if she were back. As fellow American Sasha Cohen absorbed the disappointment of falling out of a first-place finish, Michelle Kwan could hear the muffled, familiar sounds of competition concluding and an emptying arena.
It was, she said, kind of funny.
Except that it really wasn't.
The sisters ended up sobbing. Some 6,000 miles apart, they cried not onto each other's shoulders, but into their phones.
For Kwan, whose hopes of making a third run at a still-elusive Olympic gold medal were dashed by a string of injuries leading up to the Turin Games, watching the women's final punctuated an emotional, tumultuous time from which she only now is emerging. If there is one thing she discovered while taking six weeks off from the ice in an attempt to heal her still beat-up body, it's that the injuries and uproar did not touch her core. The Olympics left her feeling wounded, but she remains tantalized by the possibility of competing again.
Friday's appearance here at Germain Arena with the Champions on Ice tour's first of more than 60 shows marks her first performance -- albeit not in a competition -- since she competed in a made-for-television event in Boston in December.
Wednesday morning, she bumped into Cohen -- whom she hadn't seen since Boston -- in a corridor and exchanged a hug and polite banter. She had previously chatted with Olympic bronze medal winner Irina Slutskaya, 27, and both joked they might see each other at the next Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010.
"Right now, being healthy is my main focus," Kwan said. "Right now, everything is determined by my health. . . . You never know what will happen in four years if both of us keep our eligibility."
On this tour, which runs until August, Kwan plans to present a program to Natalie Cole's remake of Leon Russell's "A Song for You," but it won't include a single jump. Her doctor, she said, advised her not to overtax her groin and hip, which also was injured last fall, so the best she can hope for is to add a jump or two by the time the tour arrives at Verizon Center for two shows April 15. (Kimmie Meissner, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Evgeni Plushenko and others will also be performing.)
"I've never done that before, never choreographed a program without jumps," Kwan said. "When I'm feeling up to it, when I'm feeling better, then I'll say, 'Okay, it's time to jump.' . . . It's hard doing spirals and spins without jumping."
At least, though, she is back on the ice.
"It's hard not skating for six weeks," she said. "It's so much a part of me. It beats going to the gym every day. When I don't move, I feel lethargic and tired."
So there was no relief to get away from the sport?
"Competition is what I love," she said. "Being out there is what I love. Testing myself if what I love."
After abruptly dropping out of the Games, she declined to join her brother in Paris because, she said, she didn't want her pouting to ruin his vacation. NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol invited her to commentate at the women's Olympic competition. Dozens of major news shows and outlets requested interviews. She turned down everything.
She instead flew immediately home with her parents, knowing newspapers and Web sites were littered with what read like obituaries about her departure. For the next two weeks, Kwan said, she watched the Olympics devotedly, obsessively. She tuned into "Today Show" broadcasts from Turin at 7 a.m. She watched the latest events shown at night. Curling, hockey, speedskating; she did not discriminate.
She depended on her friends to keep things lighthearted, she said, but she dreaded the arrival of the women's figure skating event. Despite her anxiety, she was drawn to it. She could not skip it. Rather than watch with friends, she sought the presence of her mother and father, who briefly stood in as her coach before the 2002 Winter Games, where she won a bronze medal.
"I didn't know whether I wanted to watch the Olympics with my parents because I didn't want them to see me be emotional," Kwan said. "But I'm glad I did. . . . I needed to share it with them."
And now she wonders if she can get back. Her body, clearly, is protesting vehemently. It's pushing, even more than all those people who have asked her since after her first Olympics in Nagano in 1998: Why don't you just turn pro already?
"I've heard that since '98," she said, "Why don't you just call it quits? But look at [43-year-old] Roger Clemens and [44-year-old] Chris Chelios. They're veterans. They're probably the oldest, and still the best, or one of the best. If you can still perform, if you can still do it, why not? No one is giving you anything [in sports]. As long as you love it, why not?"
Here, perhaps, is why not: Kwan described getting out of bed every morning as an exercise in pain management. She clutched her back and moved her arms slowly to mimic the gradual unwinding. Her back creaks. Her legs stiffen. Her buttocks ache. It takes sessions with therapists and hours of just moving around to feel . . . young again.
Kwan is 25.
"By the afternoon," she said, "it's like I'm back to myself again."
Kwan said she intends to decide for certain which direction to send her life by the summer's end. She plans to finish her degree at UCLA in the near future and has a variety of acting and other options.
But she said she wants to see how she feels on the ice when not beset by injuries before even considering ending a career that brought her five world championships and nine U.S. titles.
"Some people have definite answers," Kwan said. "That's not me. But when it's a definite answer, it will be written in stone. I'm always good for my word."
Pics from last night at the
Marshalls U.S. Figure Skating International Showcase