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E.M. Swift
December 24, 2001
A Real DownerAnother puzzling loss left Michelle Kwan struggling to right herself for the Games
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December 24, 2001

Olympic Sports

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A Real Downer
Another puzzling loss left Michelle Kwan struggling to right herself for the Games

One great skate. That's all four-time world champion Michelle Kwan needed to silence her critics. One jaw-dropping, knock-your-knickers-off performance to let the world know she was back. And what better time and place to do it than last week's International Skating Union Grand Prix final in Kitchener, Ont., the last international test before the Olympics? The Grand Prix had an all-star field, including Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who had beaten Kwan all three times they'd met this season and six of seven times in the past two years.

All those nagging questions would have vanished if Kwan, 21, could have rekindled the past. Questions about her decision in October to fire her coach of 10 years, Frank Carroll, and her failure to replace him. Questions about the wisdom of jilting choreographer Lori Nichol, who'd worked with her since 1993 and helped define her elegant style. Questions about Kwan's lifeless performances this fall. One great skate, and the second-guessing would have stopped.

It didn't happen. Not once in three tries in Kitchener did Kwan beat Slutskaya or bring the crowd to its feet. Kwan spun out of her combination jump during Friday afternoon's short program, finishing third. Then she fell on a triple loop during Friday night's free-skating program. Finally, on Saturday night, during the second free skate (an oddity of this competition), Kwan fell on her final triple toe loop. She never showed spark and wound up second, behind Slutskaya. Asked on Friday if she was pacing herself during the long Olympic run-up, Kwan smiled ruefully: "It looks as if I'm pacing myself, but I'm trying to build some momentum."

It wasn't as if Slutskaya, 22, who's the clear Olympic favorite, skated like a house afire. After a fine short program she lost much of her fizz in the free skates, landing only four clean triple jumps (of six planned) in each and making several errors. Her speed, however, was better than Kwan's, her spins more difficult, and her obvious pleasure while skating a plus. Kwan used to be guaranteed the higher presentation marks, but Slutskaya outscored her in Kitchener. That bodes badly for Kwan in Salt Lake City.

As for Sarah Hughes, the 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., who put herself in the spotlight by beating Slutskaya and Kwan this fall at Skate Canada, she clearly performs better coming out of the shadows. Considered an upset threat, Hughes fell in her short program and made several mistakes in Friday's free skate to stand fourth going into the final. With no chance to win, she skated superbly on Saturday-three of the seven judges placed her ahead of Slutskaya-and finished third overall, the same placement she had a year ago in this event.

Kwan, too, finished behind Slutskaya at last year's Grand Prix final and then won the world championships. So it would be a mistake to count her out. "Michelle has a pattern of peaking at the right time," says Nichol.

Interestingly, the 1998 short program that Nichol created for Kwan to music by Rachmaninoff was pulled out of mothballs by Kwan last week after she watched old tapes. Kwan also intends to skate to it in Salt Lake City, as she did at the Games in Nagano-another decision that left people scratching their heads. It's as if she believes she can go back to the future, to when she had spring to her stride every time she took the ice. Kwan has become her own Kwannabe. "Sometimes you have to go down before you can go up again," Nichol says.

The down part Kwan has mastered. Up again needs work.

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