An End to the Program

By Mike Wise
Monday, February 13, 2006

TURIN, Italy

Michelle Kwan now goes home to an off-ice life she doesn't know, to a world unsure of what to think of her when she is not smiling and spinning, full of elan and grace. She goes home like the Deadhead who spent his life following Jerry Garcia's band, wondering why his room is unchanged since 1970.

Arrested adolescence, that's what figure skating became for Kwan. She wanted to be 15 forever. She found out 25 feels like 45 in her child-labor sport. The grand dame of the dysfunctional toe-pick universe, that's who Kwan was five years after her 20th birthday.

Her legions feel cheated by the ending, the injured, painful groin that forced Kwan to withdraw from the Winter Games on Sunday, the dead-somber news conference conducted like a wake for her incomparable career.

But they should let it go, just as Kwan let go of her place on the U.S. figure skating team, allowing Emily Hughes a wonderful opportunity to continue compromising her teenage years.

The injury reaffirmed what Kwan already knew: Toe loops, axels and lutzes do not come from natural movement. Pounding your ligaments, joints and bones into Olympic ice is for pixies, not for adult women chasing an elusive gold medal.

Now she will attempt to move on, one hopes to something more whole and enriching than finding the approval of others for a living. But it will be difficult. There is a reason they call a skater's time on the ice a "program." From early childhood, that's what most of these little girls without work permits are: programmed.

To smile. To emote. To perform just so, for fussy and spare adults who care nothing for their often-warped childhoods. Young figure skaters are programmed to commit themselves to a life about pleasing others more than themselves. And no one was better at pleasing than Kwan.

Kimmie Meissner said she learned how to talk to the press by watching Sasha Cohen. "Not Michelle Kwan?" she was asked. "Oh, no. Sasha gets all the hard, mean questions and Michelle gets the easy ones. You all love Michelle."

Meissner is 16. Yet she already understands why brittle, porcelain figurines like Cohen are interrogated and why the same tough, "Law and Order" crowd melts into puddles when Kwan smiles.

The knock on Kwan was always that judges were more influenced by her artistry and 200-kilowatt grin than her skating. That Kwan didn't have the physical talents of a powerful skater like Cohen, and yet when she hit a big jump -- when that spiral move began at the end of her program, when that nubile leg stretched way over her head and the final spin began -- the judges didn't need to see more.

In hindsight, they should have just called her Obi-Wan Kwan, so good were her Jedi mind tricks.

You will give me another 6.0

Yes, we will give you another 6.0.

Her failure to win Olympic gold was a better indicator of her true talent than her nine national titles and five world championships, detractors said.

Others wished her critics would shut their cynical traps, pointing to all the young girls who put on their first pair of skates because they wanted to be Kwan. That anyone is accusing her of manipulating the system today -- not letting Emily Hughes know sooner -- should remember: Kwan made sure the United States had a third representative at the world championships in 1998 and 2002, after Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes claimed exhaustion from winning gold and bagged out.

There was a somberness to the news conference that was almost depressing, as if Kwan's life were over. Doctors were brought in. Approximate times were given in regard to her injuries and the exact moment another skater was chosen. It was as if Michelle Kwan were lying in a hospital bed instead of sitting on a podium.

"She's a real loss to all of the United States Olympic Committee and to the United States of America, and I think to the world," said Peter Ueberroth, the USOC president. "She's made a courageous decision."

But the true loss for Kwan is that it appears she didn't have much in the way of a life outside skating. There was the aborted attempt at college, a short-lived stint at UCLA. (Sarah Hughes reportedly is doing fine as a sophomore at Yale.) Little is known about her social life. Last March, she was asked by NBC's Katie Couric if she had a boyfriend: "No, no, no, no. No, no boyfriend," she replied.

Her life was filled with the strenuous business of being Michelle Kwan, showing up for every photo shoot and doing myriad commercials and being who America wanted her to be. Being America's ice princess demanded her total fidelity.

What does Kwan do now? Does she try to ride her stardom on the ice show circuit, milking her fame until it inevitably fades away? Or like Sarah Hughes does she seek something with more depth?

The day before, she was asked what she would do if Turin was the end. She paused and finally said: "Maybe I'll walk around Europe. Maybe I'll change my plane ticket home."

She might have real difficulty finding another life beyond figure skating, that was the feeling in the news conference. She needed gold and her skating identity so badly, the thinking went, that Kwan would have no idea what to do next.

They should smile for Kwan today, smile as sweetly and beautifully as the greatest figure skater in American history did. At least the programmed part of her life is through. For realizing it was time to start over, she deserves an encore.

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