The worst thing that happened to figure skater Michelle Kwan because of her pratfalls in the U.S. Championships on Saturday night was not losing her national title to Tara Lipinski.
The worst thing is knowing that if it happened once, it can happen again.
Kwan, reigning world champion at 16, had been virtually invulnerable to bad performances during her five seasons at the sport’s senior level. During that time, she had only one other poor showing, at last year’s Centennial on Ice, and that could be written off to jet lag and the flu.
Anyone would be a fool to write off Kwan’s chances for an Olympic gold medal next year simply because of one free skate in which she fell twice, nearly fell a third time and all but admitted she was ready to give up had the crowd not cheered midway through the 4-minute program.
“Every once in a while, a great athlete is going to have a bad go,” said Kwan’s coach, Frank Carroll.
The question, of course, is how well Kwan goes on.
Carroll and anyone who watched Kwan practice in Nashville could see this debacle looming. For all her brave talk about wanting to be the bull’s eye for all her national rivals, doubt had begun to creep into Kwan’s mind before she skated. That doubt was even more apparent in her frank and gracious attempts to explain the failure.
In a practice one day before the competition began, Kwan repeatedly fell or failed to land cleanly her most difficult jump, the triple lutz. Frustrated by the problems, she made a substantial change in her approach to the jump takeoff. That was a radical step in figure skating, where repetition is seen as a critical element to success.
The move was not unlike a golfer with sudden yips going to a different grip on the putter or a dead-eye free-throw shooter trying to break a slump by shooting underhand.
“Lutzitis,” Carroll said that afternoon. For Kwan, it was an infection of weakened confidence in the way things had been as she won her first U.S. and world titles last year.
“It’s very different defending a title than struggling to win one,” Carroll said. “Until you get in the situation, how do you know what it is really like?”
Kwan insisted pressure had not been her undoing. Yet she used words like “panicked” and “scared” to describe her state of mind during the free skate, in which she finished behind Lipinski and Nicole Bobek and had lower technical marks than fourth-place finisher Angela Nikodinov.
There will be pressure on Kwan to rebound as she defends her Champions Series title next weekend in Hamilton, Ont. The burden of being an overwhelming favorite has been lifted - to be replaced by questions that she has to push into the recesses of her mind.
Judge for yourself: While the judges did a good job sorting out the overall order of finish after startlingly good (Lipinski, Bobek, Nikodinov) and bad (Kwan, Tonia Kwiatkowski) performances in the women’s free skate, one set of marks left the sport open to deserved ridicule.
Elaine DeMore, a veteran judge, somehow saw fit to score Kwan first in the free skate.
Wolf at the golden door: Chicago judoka Hillary Wolf, 20, last weekend won her first gold medal at a major European meet, taking the 106-pound division at the Austrian Open. In the process, Wolf defeated reigning Olympic bronze medalist Amaritis Savon of Cuba, reversing the outcome of their match in Atlanta last summer.
Feasting on success: Muslim runner Hicham el Guerrouj of Morocco was observing the Ramadan fast when he set the indoor world record for 1,500 meters three weeks ago. The month of fasting from sunrise to sundown had just ended when he broke the indoor mile record last week.
“I am totally exhausted,” said el Guerrouj, 21, scheduled to race again Thursday night in Stockholm. “After Ramadan, you lose a lot of energy.”
That was hardly evident in his record runs. His time of 3 minutes, 31.18 seconds in the 1,500 lowered the record by nearly as much (2.98 seconds) as it had come down in the previous 18 years (3.2 seconds). His 3:48.45 for the mile took took 1.33 seconds off Eamonn Coghlan’s 14-year-old mark.