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Inside Olympic Sports
Posted: Tuesday February 16, 1999 02:40 PM
Michelle Kwan won her third title at the U.S. championships, but 13-year-old runner-up Naomi Nari Nam stole the show
By E.M. Swift
The past, of course, was Kwan-slayer Tara Lipinski, who in 1996 burst on the scene at age 13, dethroned Kwan as the U.S. and world champ at 14, then snatched the gold medal from Kwan at the Nagano Olympics at 15. Before Kwan could say "Tara's tutu," her young nemesis had high-tailed it to the pros, leaving Kwan no one to compete with but herself.
Or so people thought until last Saturday night's breakthrough by another tiny (4'8") 13-year-old, Naomi Nari Nam of Irvine, Calif. "I've been around so long, I'm not easy to impress," said former U.S. Figure Skating Association president Morry Stillwell, "but before she had even finished, I was jumping out of my chair."
He wasn't alone. By the time Nari Nam was midway through her closing combination spin, the crowd was roaring approval from its feet. The doll-like Nari Nam had landed five triple jumps and unleashed an array of breathtaking spins, all the while dazzling fans with a natural, high-voltage smile. "She enjoys audiences," says her coach, John Nicks. "She's extremely musical and has an originality that's very exciting."
She is also so young that even if she had upset Kwan -- Nari Nam finished second to the Olympic silver medalist on the cards of all nine judges -- she would still have been ineligible to compete in next month's world championships in Helsinki. If the rules aren't changed, she'll be too young again in 2000. But in 2002, when the Olympics come to Salt Lake City, Nari Nam will be primed to knock off her idol.
Kwan, who skated beautifully except for a fall on a triple Lutz, can see the potential in her young rival. "I've worked with her a little," Kwan says, "and you can see it in her eyes. She definitely has it in her."
Which, in a funny way, may help keep the 18-year-old Kwan from losing interest in the 2002 Games and turning pro. Before the worlds, even friends such as Brian Boitano were expressing doubt that she could stay motivated for another three years.
There's a life out there beyond skating that Kwan is longing to explore. Her older sister, Karen, is a junior at Boston University, and Michelle talks to her almost daily about college life. What's it like to eat pizza anytime she wants? To stay up late talking to friends? To live away from the 'rents? These are dizzying freedoms to an iceaholic like Kwan. She has applied to Harvard, Stanford and UCLA and has considered taking a year off from serious training to recharge her batteries.
Suddenly, though, that possibility seems more remote. "I want to improve," says Kwan, whose jumps are bigger than ever this year and who landed a triple toe-triple toe combination on Saturday night that, had she done it at the Olympics, probably would have won her the gold. "If I still have that flame burning inside me and my legs are healthy, I'll be out here."
Trying not to look back to the future.
Kristina Koznick, the leading American slalom skier, did roughly eight times better at the world championships at Vail last Saturday than she did at the last world championships, two years ago. On a glorious Colorado day with ideal snow conditions, Koznick, wearing the desirable number 1 starting bib and cheered on by a rabid home crowd, lasted some 16 seconds before catching an edge and straddling a gate. That was an improvement over her performance at the '97 worlds in Sestriere, Italy, where she missed the second gate, two seconds into her first run. Koznick, who would have bet all her money that she would win a medal this time, sank to her knees in the snow on Saturday and sobbed.
Having spent half a decade solidifying their reputation as big-race skiers -- with Tommy Moe's Olympic downhill win in Lillehammer, Picabo Street's 1996 world downhill championship and 1998 Olympic Super G title, Hilary Lindh's downhill gold in Sestriere -- the Americans squandered a home course advantage in Vail with a grim performance. While Lasse Kjus of Norway was winning two golds and three silvers and the indomitable Austrians were taking 13 of the 30 medals, the U.S. was aced out of the podium scramble by an Australian and a Liechtensteiner. "What we are missing with this generation of athletes is confidence," said U.S. women's coach Marjan Cernigoj. "They train well, but they seem to be scared of the race." They probably should be just as scared of U.S. ski association president Bill Marolt, who said, after Koznick's abbreviated run, "There's nothing wrong with the program that a little focus and discipline and hard work and kick-ass attitude won't fix."
Koznick was the only bona fide U.S. medal hopeful in the competition. (Street, who crashed in the World Cup finals last March, will have a metal plate removed from her left leg late next month and probably won't race for another year.) In the past 13 months Koznick has won two World Cup slaloms, both of them -- not accidentally, in the mind of women's slalom coach Georg Capaul -- run at night. "She likes the crowds," Capaul says. "She likes to perform. She skis really well when the lights are bright." Koznick, 23, cheerfully admits that she craves attention, which explains the blonde bleach job she got three weeks ago. "Maybe I want to stand out more than I do," says Koznick, who knows that finishing second in the World Cup slalom standings last year and ranking fifth this season aren't enough to make most Americans take notice. "I don't have a name like Picabo, and I'm not a bitch, so, like, what do I do? I'm not saying Picabo's a bitch, I'm just talking in general. But something's got to catch somebody's attention."
Instead, she caught that edge. "Not my day, apparently," she said, a single tear dripping down her cheek. Not the Americans' two weeks.
-- By Michael Farber
As new examples of Olympic bribery and corruption ooze out day by day, politicians and pundits continue to wag fingers and scold the miscreants. One group, however, has been largely silent on the subject. What do the athletes think about the controversy enveloping the Games -- their Games? SI asked a few former and aspiring Olympians for their views on the scandal:
Brian Boitano, 1988 gold-medal-winning U.S. figure skater: "The IOC ought to steer more of the athletes back onto the Olympic Committee. The athletes should be paid for serving, and they should be subject to election."
Todd Eldredge, two-time U.S. Olympic skater: "As athletes, we go to the Olympics to skate. I've never in my life met an IOC member. But this scandal shouldn't be that surprising, since you hear it's what goes on in politics. Why wouldn't it be in the Olympics?"
Alexandra Meissnitzer, Austrian skier, world champion in Super G and giant slalom: "Everything now is about money. The Olympics should be about the athletes, not money."
Bode Miller, U.S. slalom skier: "I think it's typical of this age and time. It seems more and more people are being exposed for the sleazes they are. It's just a bummer that they're running the show."
A.J. Mleczko, 1998 U.S. women's Olympic hockey team member: "As athletes we train and we compete, and nothing they do should be able to take away the spirit of the Olympics. But bribery taints that spirit. This has taken commercialization too far. It's sickening."
Issue date: February 22, 1999
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