The Michelle Kwan Myth, Worth Its Weight in Gold

Michelle Kwan can spill, but one wonders if her huge following ever will.
Michelle Kwan can spill, but one wonders if her huge following ever will. (By Stephen Munday -- Getty Images)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

There are a few reasons why Michelle Kwan is not the best skater in the world.

She's not the fastest. That's Irina Slutskaya, the Russian dynamo. Nor the best jumper. That's Shizuka Arakawa, the Japanese world champion who launches as if pulled up by someone in the sky. Nor the most acrobatic spinner. That's the United States' Sasha Cohen, possibly the most flexible woman on Earth.

She's not associated with any skating firsts -- as in the first skater to land a quadruple jump or the first skater to perform a Biellmann spin. She has failed to join the ranks of Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, all American Olympic gold medalists. The last two bested Kwan -- Lipinski in 1998 and Hughes in 2002.

Yet there she is, more popular than all those gold medalists, if that can be measured in endorsements and TV specials. She is a recognizable name not only to the millions who follow skating but to the many millions more who don't. Michelle who? Oh, you mean the skater!

What is it about Michelle Kwan?

There's Michelle Kwan the athlete: nine-time U.S. champion, five-time world champion, the most decorated American figure skater in history.

This, however, is not to be confused with Michelle Kwan the myth: the graceful, ethereal, classy Olympian who will be remembered as one of the greatest athletes never to win the gold. She is Sisyphus, rolling her hope up Mount Olympus, doomed to watch it roll down each time. But she is also the goddess Hestia, who is revered and respected as the keeper of the flame by every Olympian.

With the skater and the myth bowing out of her third Olympics, the Kwanatics -- the legions of fans passionately dedicated to all things Kwan, the ones who log on to her fan forums on the Internet -- are devastated.

"So what's the point of watching the Olympics now?" asks Karen Mitchell, a 33-year-old D.C. resident who works in government contracting and has followed Kwan's career for a decade.

"There are a lot of little girls out there trying to be Michelle Kwan," adds Katherine Coughlin, a 29-year-old lawyer skating with friends at the National Gallery of Art outdoor rink. "They're going to be disappointed to not see her compete next week."

Kwan was Pygmalion. She transformed herself from a shy, awkward girl in a ponytail to a mature, marketable multimillionaire. Perhaps no other Olympic athlete, in either the Winter or Summer Games, has been written about so much.

"Her longevity, in a sport that's known for chewing little girls up and spitting them out, has just been incredible," says Christine Brennan, the USA Today sports columnist and the author of "Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey Into the Secret World of Figure Skating." "To be at the top for so long. That's been the key thing with Michelle."

She seems always to say the right thing during the worst of times. Here was Kwan, resolute and eloquent, when she lost to Lipinski in Nagano: "It might not be the color medal I wanted, but I'll take it. Because c'est la vie, right? . . . Even though you work hard, it doesn't mean you're going to get a gold medal."

Here was Kwan again four years later, when she lost to Hughes in Salt Lake City: "I tried to fight through it, but it just wasn't my night. I just had to remind myself, it's okay, it's okay." In a tearful press conference Sunday, announcing her withdrawal from the Turin Olympics after a groin injury, Kwan said: "I respect the Olympics too much to compete."

What is it about Kwan? Perhaps it's the way each move -- a jump, a spin, a footwork sequence, an outside-edge to inside-edge spiral -- is precisely timed to the beat of the music, whether it's Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 or Puccini's "Tosca" or Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins." When the music soars, she soars right with it. When the music whispers, she's so perfectly balanced on her skates that, unlike most skaters, you can barely hear the sound of her blades. Every move means something. No emotion is left off the ice.

Slutskaya, the speedy skater, Arakawa, the high-flying jumper, and Cohen, the breathtaking spinner -- all of them vying for Olympic gold -- don't take center ice until next week. But they'll be skating, now and forever, in the shadow of Kwan the athlete and Kwan the myth, only 25 years old.

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