TURIN, Italy -- We remember her fresh face and innocent smile from a dozen years ago when Michelle Kwan introduced herself to the world. She was all of 13, a naive eighth-grader foreign to the filth of figure skating. Even then, as her sport crumbled around her, she was a model of dignity and class.
She burst onto the skating scene in 1994 as an alternate on the U.S. team after the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding nightmare turned American figure skating into an international punch line. Kwan was the little girl skating on the side while the suits and the cops sifted through the attack on Kerrigan.
Nancy recovered from her knee injury. Tonya skated freely into the Olympics and collapsed. The soap opera continued.
Kwan graciously stepped aside knowing she was meant for another time. She stepped aside again Sunday when she withdrew from the 2006 Winter Olympics knowing full well she was out of time, out of opportunities to win a gold medal.
"I'd love to compete in my third Olympics, but I love and respect the sport," she said. "I think it's all about the United States presenting its best team to the Olympic Games. And I wouldn't want to be in the way of that."
It was no surprise she carried herself with familiar grace, but there was no ignoring the pain accompanying the announcement Sunday. Kwan was dressed in black, looking very much like a woman headed for a funeral. As a tear rolled down the left side of her nose, it became obvious this was, in fact, a day of mourning.
You couldn't help but sympathize with her. She was overcome by emotion, knowing she faced the inevitable. She's been the face of U.S. figure skating for a decade. She won nine national titles and captured the world championships five times. All told, she won a record 43 titles, making her the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history.
For everything she did for skating and what skating did for her, her career will end quietly without Olympic gold. Sadly, that's what people will remember. Twice, she was favored to skate away with the most distinguished title and both times wound up finishing behind younger, less-polished women who quickly abandoned the sport.
Kwan is 25, practically an old lady by women's singles standards. In truth, she would have had a difficult time capturing gold in Italy even if she avoided the nagging groin injury that chased her from the Games. She doesn't have the time, the skill or the will to train for another four years.
Yes, the end is near.
"It's always been a dream to win the Olympic gold medal, and it's always been an honor to represent my country," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "My parents are here, and they want me to be happy. They want their baby to win the gold and make her dream come true. But I've learned it's not about the gold. It's about the spirit of it. It's about the sport."
Kwan was the most recognizable figure in these Winter Games, and there's a lengthy list of skaters who should thank her for bringing so much attention and money to the sport. For years, she was the best technical skater in the world and one of figure skating's true artists. She had 57 perfect scores in major competitions, the most of any woman or man in history. And nobody faced more pressure for a longer period.
You hope skating appreciates her the way she appreciates the sport. She lasted all these years because, to her, it really was about the skating. It was clear in her performances. She was lutzing and salchowing and, all the while, smiling. In recent years, she was slipping. She had problems adjusting to the new scoring system, and American Sasha Cohen whizzed past Kwan during the past year.
"Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed for the United States Olympic Committee," USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth said. "She a leader, she's been gracious, she's somebody to cherish forever. She's a real loss to all of the [USOC], to the United States of America and, I think, to the world."
If only there was a way to bottle her. Still, we'll never call her the best ever, not with the hole in her resume.
She participated in two Olympics, but it seems she's been skating forever because she's been around for four. She won the silver in the '98 Nagano Games, finishing second after pushing American Tara Lipinski to the best performance of her career. Kwan slipped to the bronze four years ago in Salt Lake City after a small mistake and winner Sarah Hughes' flawless long program.
"I have no regrets," Kwan said. "I've tried my hardest. And if I don't win the gold, it's OK. I've had a great career. And this is the sport. It's beautiful."
Lipinski and Hughes might have beaten her on those nights, but Kwan carried the sport for a good decade. She's been there when U.S. figure skating needed her most, all but saving the sport from ruins. She was there again Sunday after attending Opening Ceremonies on Friday and running into problems in an abbreviated workout Saturday.
Still, she had options. She could have continued therapy and hoped she would return to top form. Instead, 10 days before the event, she gave her team time to summon 16-year-old Emily Hughes from Long Island. Kwan graciously stepped aside again.
The gold medal is gone. She's worth more.