TURIN, Italy -- Michelle Kwan's 12-year Olympic odyssey ended early Sunday morning, about 2:15 a.m. Turin time, when the USOC's Dr. Jim Moeller determined she had re-injured her right groin during her first practice in Italy, less than twelve hours after she had marched in Opening Ceremonies. Within minutes Kwan made the difficult decision to take herself off the team. The five-time world champion and nine-time U.S. champion will be replaced by 17-year-old Emily Hughes, who was eating a Sarah Gold sushi roll at a Japanese restaurant when she got the news from USFSA executive director David Raith. Grounded by the blizzard that has blanketed the East Coast, it's unclear when Hughes will be able to get to Turin, though she promises it will be before the ladies competition begins nine days from now, on Feb. 21.
The development is a sad ending to the 25-year-old Kwan's otherwise brilliant career. The one medal she'd never won was Olympic gold, having captured silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002. (In 1994 she was in Lillehammer as an alternate, waiting to see if the USOC would be successful in removing Tonya Harding from the Olympic team.)
She's been gracious both in victory and defeat. She's been a great role model to younger skaters and an inspiration to her countless fans.
Still, the question remains: Should Kwan's petition for an Olympic spot have been granted by the USFSA in the first place after she'd missed the entire Grand Prix season in the fall with a hip injury and the U.S. Nationals in January with the groin injury?
Clearly not. Strained groins are notoriously slow to heal and easily re-injured, which is exactly what happened to Kwan when she attempted a triple flip 15 minutes into her first Turin practice.
While the late addition of Hughes -- who finished third at Nationals but was bumped to make room for Kwan -- might be viewed as a wrong righted, it is still a wrong and reflects badly on the USFSA and its petition process. Hughes has been given short shrift in what should have been the experience of a lifetime, missing the thrill of marching in Opening Ceremonies, of being able to spend the entire three weeks in the Olympic Village, of having the free time to see other Olympic events. Now she has to contend with hurried travel plans and a late adjustment to jet lag. Skaters do best when they're calm and relaxed, and whatever Hughes' Olympic experience might prove to be, it definitely won't be one that's relaxed.
In granting Kwan's petition the USFSA forgot its most fundamental charge: To promote fair competition and to treat all its athletes equally. Only when that is done should it, or any organization, worry about bringing home Olympic medals for the good ol' USA -- which was its justification for adding Kwan over the inexperienced Hughes. What can only be guessed at is to what degree USFSA officials were influenced by the ratings boost Kwan's appearance would have given NBC's Olympic coverage. Or to what degree Kwan's lucrative endorsement deals with Coca-Cola and Visa played into their thinking.
By withdrawing early -- as she'd promised to do when Kwan was originally granted her petition -- Kwan made the best of a bad situation. As usual, she handled herself with class. "I respect the Olympics too much to compete when I'm not at my best," she said.
But the fact is Kwan shouldn't have been here at all.