Monday, January 20, 2003

THE LATEST CHAPTER OF MICHELLE VS. THE TWERPS: Michelle Kwan took her seventh national championship Saturday night, beating Sara Hughes, and Christine Brennan sees their rivalry as a good thing for the sport:

If you've ever wondered why women are the stars of U.S. skating, you'll never have another doubt after Saturday night. One of the most electric scenes in sports is the last warm-up group of the women's long program at a nationals, worlds or Olympics. Saturday, anything seemed possible for the six women swirling around the ice, including Kwan, Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes and perennial gold potentialist Sasha Cohen. It made for fabulous theater.

Kwan skated first. "Rushing out there, the adrenaline pumping, in the moment, the crowd's cheering, it's incredible, an incredible feeling," she said. "The intensity of it all — the judges staring right at you, your heart's beating. It's just like the movies. Your own movie."

I have a question: Has anyone in skating ever loved competing more than Michelle Kwan? She skated magnificently, surpassed only by herself at an earlier age, in 1996 and again in 1998. She was on such a roll that when it came time to throw in her final triple jump, the seventh of her program, she uncharacteristically bagged it. "I was too jazzed," she said. "I just wanted to do the nice footwork and then blast (the arena) apart. At that point, everyone's just coming off the walls."

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2006 Olympic gold medalist, Michelle Kwan. The third time has to be the charm, doesn't it?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Your 2002 Olympic gold medalist, Sarah Hughes, is into this competition thing just about as much as Kwan, which means Kwan-Hughes has all the trappings of Martina-Chrissie without tennis shoes. Hughes always makes things interesting. On Saturday night, by mistake, she and her coach arrived at the arena 10 minutes before she was to take the ice for her warm-up. Normally, skaters give themselves an hour backstage to get ready. By the time Hughes threw on her outfit and skates and took a deep breath, it was time to hit the ice.

No problem. Because she skated last, she took advantage of an extra 40 minutes to stretch after the on-ice warm-up, shook off 11 months of rust and did everything she had to do to finish a strong second. It wasn't an Olympic replay, but it was solid and gutsy and absolutely perfect for this point in her season. The kid is a money skater, a gamer. If she shifts into overdrive the next two months, Hughes should have her triple-triples back and be ready to provide a better challenge to Kwan in D.C.

Then there's Sasha Cohen. Because she was the only one of the three to compete all season, this was her title to win, and she didn't come close. Once again, she failed to complete a clean long program (she's never done one in competition), and you begin to wonder if she ever will. She clearly wants it too much, is trying too hard, is thinking too much, is getting too nervous. Then again, competing with Kwan and Hughes will do that to you.

Brennan is completely right about the electric moment that occurs when the six finalists are gathered together off-ice, each in their little zone of concentration, right before they go out on the ice for the warm-up skate. It's completely great, in a way similiar to the prolonged staredown at the beginning of any big pro wrestling match. And for the record, let me say that Ann Patric McDonough completely outskated Sasha Cohen--though she fell down in the short program--and I can think of no reason why Sasha came out of there with a medal besides preconceived notions on the part of the judges. But that's just something you accept if you're watching a judged sport.

Brennan takes the time to slag the US men's figure skaters:

The men were so awful that venerable U.S. coach Don Laws had this to say: "It's terribly embarrassing for me because I'm training Michael."

And Michael Weiss won.

I use the word won advisedly. Survived is more like it. Weiss became the first man in at least 11 years to capture the U.S. title without landing that old staple, the triple axel, in either his short or long program. It should be noted that junior girls in Japan are landing triple axels these days. Meanwhile, Timothy Goebel finished second without landing even one quad in his long program, which last happened to him during the Truman administration. "It was an embarrassment," Goebel admitted.

If the United States had any depth in men's skating, Weiss and Goebel would have finished fourth and fifth and missed the world team. Now they have two months to redeem themselves for the world championships in Washington, D.C. This is no joke. If they can't pull it together, neither is likely to crack the top 10.

There's probably cultural reasons for our men's program being pathetic. Like, it's cool for a competitive female to go into figure skating in our society, but a competitive male has so many other sports to go into, plus there's probably a cultural bias against figure skating for guys, so our more competitive athletes become wrestlers or hockey players or whatever, whereas in Russia there isn't quite the stigma about men expressing themselves via the mysteries of the dance. Something like that.

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