Pressure on our olympic skaters is itense

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY _ The empty rink looks so huge and, well, empty.

TV didn't do justice to Grizzly, the absurdly steep men's downhill course at Snowbasin. And it doesn't do justice to this, a sheet of ice at the Delta Center.

Yes, this is different. You still would sooner slip into something sparkly and try to skate across this than strap on skis and plummet down Grizzly. Yet, in its own way, this perfectly flat piece of ice is similar. It makes knees tremble.

Go ahead and question this sport. Especially this year. Question the judges and the judging system. Question the pairs, the makeup and the make-up call. ("Golds for everyone!")

Don't question the pressure.

It is real.


Michelle Kwan watchs her scores with her father Danny after competing in the women's free skating program at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2002. Kwan fell during her preformance and won the bronze medal . ()

AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

And nobody faced more of it last night than Michelle Kwan.

She walked into the Delta Center as the Dan Marino of figure skating. She had all the cash, all the endorsements, all the gaudy statistics _ six national titles, four world champions and an Olympic silver.

She walked out of the arena with two things around her neck: the Chinese good luck charm given to her by her grandmother and a bronze medal.

It happened again.

She got Lipinski-ed.

On the biggest day in figure skating, someone came up bigger.

This time it was teammate Sarah Hughes, who jumped from fourth to first.

Kwan fell. So did teammate Sasha Cohen. And, finally, after Russia's Irina Slutskaya stumbled, Hughes _ the daughter of the captain of a national championship hockey team from Cornell University _ gave the family's trophy case a new addition. An addition she said she wasn't even thinking about.

"I didn't really skate for a gold," Hughes said. "I just went out and had a good time."

She didn't put pressure on herself.

And it showed.

So the question remains: Will Kwan ever win a gold?

She had waited four years for this.

In Nagano, Kwan breezed through the short program and headed into the long program in first place. Then she played it safe and finished behind Tara Lipinski.

This year, she pledged, things would be different. She would do what has to be the toughest thing of all in this setting.

She would relax.

Even before the skating begins, the ice is surrounded by cameras. More cameras than you've seen anywhere. Rows and rows of long lenses. A TV camera on boom near the entrance to the ice. Hand-held TV cameras everywhere.

All waiting.

There will be no teammates. No caddy. No opponent on the other side of the net. Not even, as with gymnastics in the Summer Olympics, other events being held on nearby apparatus.

Just the ice, one person and 240 seconds.

It is a solo show, perhaps more solo than any other show in sports.

So why not dump your coach? Why not go it alone?

That's what Kwan said when everybody questioned her decision to split with her coach.

"It's you and the ice," she said. "No one can hold your hand."

Maybe that's what creates the huge TV ratings. Not the glamour. The pressure. This is "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" on ice.

The long program.

Kwan made it halfway through it, then she slipped, falling to the ice.

Afterward, she sat next to her father, waiting for the scores to appear.

"The flip was so dumb," she said.

She ended up on the medal stand, smiling for the cameras, holding up her flowers.

"I wish I could say it would make the happiest person on earth," she said beforehand of winning a gold. "But how come the most famous people aren't the happiest people?"

Kwan was famous before stepping on the ice. She had an autobiography, an NHL boyfriend, a place on People's "Most Beautiful" list, a $20,000 outfit for this night.

And you know what?

That only added to the pressure.

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