Second to none: Classy Kwan goes into hall

Most decorated U.S. skater in history back at nationals as spectator for first time in over two decades

Michelle Kwan is being inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Friday night.
Michelle Kwan is being inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Friday night. (Getty Images)


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By Amy Rosewater, special to
(01/27/2012) - The first time I ever saw Michelle Kwan skate in person was in 1994 at Skate America in Pittsburgh. She was still very new to the scene. Her previous showings at nationals were a sixth-place finish at the senior level in 1993 and a ninth place at the junior level in 1992.

This was also before the infamous Tonya-Nancy incident that rocked the figure skating world and two years before Kwan would win her first national title.

But you could tell she was something special even back then.

She was 14 and looked much like a 14-year-old should, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and a modest bubblegum-pink skating dress. Yet she could jump and spin with the best of them, and she wound up second behind Surya Bonaly, who was the reigning world silver medalist from France, and ahead of Russia's Irina Slutskaya.

When I reviewed the video of that performance this past week online, the broadcasters mentioned that Kwan had saved a fortune cookie message that read, "You're entering a time of great promise."

She indeed was. Most of us had no idea how much.

In the years since that performance in Pittsburgh, Kwan went on to win nine U.S. titles (tying a record set by Maribel Vinson Owen), five world championships and two Olympic medals (a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002).

For more than a decade, I was fortunate enough to cover much of Kwan's career, traveling throughout the country, from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City, and around the world, from Halifax to Helsinki. In victory and in defeat, she always handled herself like a pro.

Today, Kwan will be the lone inductee into the 2012 class of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, which is appropriate because she has always been in a class by herself.

The location of this induction is poetic. She won her first U.S. crown in San Jose in 1996, and she will become a Hall of Famer in that same city.

This past week, I got a chance to recap a good chunk, but not nearly a dent, into Kwan's career in an interview with her.

"I feel as though I've really come full circle," Kwan said. "It's just ... how do you put it all into perspective?"

It's not easy.

Even in the absence of an Olympic gold medal, Kwan's career is one of the most dominant in the sport, and it is unlikely that it will be repeated. She won a U.S. crown every year between 1998 and 2005. In the last six years, there has been only one woman to win two titles (Alissa Czisny), and she did so in 2009 and 2011. Part of the reason for this lack of one dominant force is the new judging system, which can allow for way more fluctuation in the standings than ever before. But it's also true that Kwan was relatively injury free (although she did have a toe injury in 1998).

Kwan comes to San Jose this weekend as a spectator at nationals for the first time since 1991. That was the year she just missed qualifying for nationals as a novice skater, but her older sister, Karen, made it. Their father, Danny, wanted both girls to take in the national championships in Minneapolis, and the experience made Michelle Kwan ever more determined to be a competitor.

She said she knew there would be a day when her skating career would end, but that did not make leaving the competitive scene any easier.

When a groin injury ultimately forced her to withdraw from nationals and the Olympic Winter Games in 2006, she never came back to compete. Even performing in shows was difficult.

"I still hear about an opportunity to perform in a show, and there's never a moment when I don't like or I don't want to skate," she said. "But I'm a perfectionist, and I don't want to just mail it in."

Kwan, now 31, is friends with athletes from a variety of sports, ranging from baseball to hockey, and she has taken note how they have made the transition from athletics to "the real world." Many of her friends have become coaches.

Don't look for Kwan to follow that path.

"I think I'd be a horrible coach," she said. "To be a good coach, you have to be consistent, and I am doing so much traveling and doing other things I couldn't do that."

But she can't resist offering young skaters a few pointers, especially when she stops by her family's rink, the East West Ice Palace in Artesia, Calif., where Karen and brother-in-law Peter Oppegard are coaches.

"It's so exciting for me every time I go back to East West and see these girls climbing up the ranks," Kwan said. "I'm watching them grow up. I was home for Christmas, and I love watching the show 'The Rising Stars.'"

Kwan recalled how important it was for her to be able to feed off of wisdom she plied from Olympic champion Brian Boitano and how much a little dose of encouragement from Nancy Kerrigan would mean to her career. The least she can do now, she said, is give back to the next line of women skaters.

"I can't help it when I see these young kids," she said. "I have to give them lessons. Sometimes it's nice to give them a little push."

When she's not lifting up kids at the rink, she is providing uplifting messages to young girls around the world. She makes her home in Washington, D.C., and she spends a great deal of time working with the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and has been involved with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. She also works with the U.S. Department of State and makes visits around the globe.

Following nationals, she will be in New York City as a panelist in a dialogue on girls and leadership as part of the 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts. Next month, she will return to her Southern California roots as she is co-chair of the International Olympic Committee's fifth World Conference on Women and Sport in Los Angeles. This year marks the first time the conference will take place on U.S. soil.

But first things first. She has to become a Hall of Famer. What happens next is still unchartered territory.

"Everybody has to carve out their own path, and I can't say I've completed that path, but it's so exciting to explore and travel and be curious," she said. "For an athlete, it can be hard to trust yourself, that you can do something else."

There is no doubt Michelle Kwan has changed quite a bit from that young teeny bopper back in Pittsburgh. But there's a good chance that the adage she lived by back then remains true: Her competitive skating days are behind her, but she's entering a time of great promise.