Many Olympians still around for 2003 U.S. ChampionshipsPosted: Wednesday January 08, 2003 8:04 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- How unusual. A post-Olympic year with nearly all of America's figure skating stars back for the national championships.
When the U.S. Figure Skating Championships open Tuesday, they will have an uncommonly strong field. Salt Lake City's darling, women's gold medalist Sarah Hughes, will compete. So will the hottest skater among the women this season, Sasha Cohen.
Men's Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel, who won the 2001 U.S. title and was second to Todd Eldredge last January, will be on hand. Two-time American champion Michael Weiss is back, too.
Yet the star of the show, just like for much of the last decade, figures to be Michelle Kwan.
While the Olympics have not been all that kind to Kwan -- she won silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002 even though she was the favorite -- she has owned nationals. The last five American championships were hers, and she has six altogether. Only Maribel Vinson Owen with nine U.S. crowns has outdone Kwan.
Not even Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill or Kristi Yamaguchi were as dominant on the American scene.
And Kwan is still around.
"Yeah, old Michelle is still here," she says with a laugh. "I had said, `Michelle, give yourself a break.' I was not planning on competing, was kind of scatterbrained for a while, which was unique for me. I had no goals, there was not anything I had to do.
"I just planned to see where the road led."
It led to Dallas for this week's national championships. Considering how much skating means to Kwan, that shouldn't really be surprising.
Sure, the last four Olympic winners headed straight to the pros and the show tours. But now, it's just as lucrative to remain Olympic-eligible. Besides, at 22, Kwan figures she's in her prime, not someone trying to keep up with the youngsters.
Those youngsters are formidable. Hughes has not won a nationals or worlds -- Kwan owns four of those -- but she is the Olympic queen, meaning that at the most critical time in the sport, she was at her best.
Cohen, who switched coaches and moved from California to Connecticut, has been a major force in the Grand Prix circuit, winning twice.
Ann-Patrice McDonough and Jennifer Kirk are rising stars.
But they all have to deal with Kwan, the most accomplished skater of her generation, who always seems to have what it takes at nationals.
"It really is different this year that all the Olympians are back," Kwan says. "Sarah and Sasha, they are young, and from what I see, they want to do more in skating, which is great.
"It used to be a whole new batch of skaters after Olympics. People like familiar faces, and we all are there.
"I'm pretty psyched. I've been working hard, I have a new coach (Scott Williams), and these two new programs I really like. And there is a title at stake, and that challenge always stays fresh."
Staying fresh will be essential for Kwan. While the challengers respect her record and her skating, they are not in awe of her.
"It would be easier if everyone retired and it was just me. But in a way, I am glad they stayed," Cohen said. "With all these great skaters, they're going to push me and motivate me to work harder.
"Because of them, I'm going to be a better skater."
Kwan isn't likely to be unnerved by strong competition. From her first national and world championships victories in 1996 to now, she has been that rare athlete who can withdraw within herself and then pull out a superb performance.
"I've been the favorite going into a lot of competitions," she says. "Both ways, it doesn't matter. People try to analyze it so much and you just can't. You might be hot or cold that day."
Unfortunately for Kwan, the coldest days have been at Nagano and Salt Lake City in the free skate programs. Her skating was too reserved in the 1998 Games, and Tara Lipinski, with the most difficult women's program in Olympics history to that point, sneaked away with the gold medal.
In Utah, it was Hughes' soaring performance and a rare mediocre one from Kwan that sent the Long Island teenager to the top and dropped Kwan to third.
It has been suggested that Kwan still is competing because she is haunted by those two Olympics. When asked, back comes the infectious laugh.
"It's not so much the medal or an emptiness of not having Olympic gold," she says. "I wish I could pinpoint what drives me. Then I would bottle it up and put it to every aspect of my life.
"I have as much fun doing nationals as ever. I still have the same feeling and the same energy.
"I'm always try to push it to the limit and the maximum to keep my interest. And I am always learning. It's dull if you go to school and you know everything. In skating, you never know."