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Absent Kwan still the talk of skating championships

| Saturday, Jan. 14, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- Even from half a country away, Michelle Kwan is dominating the national championships.

The nine-time champion is missing the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for the first time since 1991, at home nursing a groin injury. But she's petitioned for a spot on the Olympic team, and the "Should she or shouldn't she?" debate has sparked far more interest than anything happening on the ice.

Fans are wearing buttons and T-shirts supporting Kwan. Each of the top women has been asked -- repeatedly -- what she thinks, and coaches and choreographers have weighed in, too. Even men's contender Evan Lysacek had his pre-event news conference hijacked by Kwan questions.

"No, I'm not surprised that it's a huge deal," Ron Hershberger, president of U.S. Figure Skating, said yesterday. "Michelle has been a marvelous champion. She's a terrific athlete. It's clear that skating fans everywhere adore her, and they should. She's been a terrific image for the sport of figure skating, so I'm not surprised that there's all this attention."

Only the winner of the women's event is guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team, with the federation's International Committee selecting the other two athletes after the free skate Saturday night. There are 35 people on the committee, but at least nine will have to recuse themselves because of personal or professional conflicts; a simple majority is needed.

The committee will base its selection on how athletes fared at six competitions. They are, in order of importance: nationals; the 2005 Grand Prix final; the 2005 world championships; the 2005 Four Continents championships; the 2005 Junior Grand Prix final; and the 2005 world junior championships.

Kwan also had to be examined by a doctor selected by U.S. Figure Skating to prove she was physically ready to compete in Turin.

"She was seen by a doctor at his office (on Thursday) and had a complete examination of the groin injury," Kwan's agent, Shep Goldberg, told The Associated Press.

Neither Kwan nor U.S. Figure Skating had seen the report as of yesterday afternoon. Goldberg also said Kwan resumed jumping again yesterday for the first time since Dec. 17.

"Definitely she's earned it," said Kimmie Meissner, who was in fourth place after the short program and one of the skaters at risk of being bumped if Kwan is selected. "She has a pretty good track record. Since I don't have to make the decision, I'm glad."

Most years, putting Kwan on the Olympic team would be a no-brainer. She's the most popular skater since Scott Hamilton, and has helped bring untold millions -- fans and dollars -- to the sport. Her longevity and success -- she's won five world titles and Olympic silver and bronze medals -- have made her one of those rare celebrity athletes who transcends her sport.

But she's skated sparingly in recent years, and was sidelined for most of this season first by a hip injury and then by the groin injury. She did do an invitational in early December, but failed to land a triple jump.

She also struggled in her only competition under the new judging system. Her fourth-place finish at the world championships last spring was her worst since 1995.

"It's (U.S. Figure Skating's) job to pick three skaters that will place the highest at the Olympics," said Sasha Cohen, who had a comfortable lead after the short program. "I really am not too deep in the politics of U.S. Figure Skating, but I definitely think whoever it is that doesn't get to go would be devastated."

Kwan knows that all too well. Then 13, she finished second at the 1994 nationals but was left off the Olympic team when Nancy Kerrigan was awarded a medical bye. It was the last time a skater petitioned for an Olympic spot.

"Michelle's been to a couple of games already," Cohen said. "But then again, it's the United States' job to send the best team, the strongest skaters."

Whether she wins or not, Cohen is considered a lock for the team. That means Emily Hughes, Beatrisa Liang, Meissner and Alissa Czisny are the ones vying for the remaining spots -- or spot.

"I think that there's probably only two spots. Maybe only one because you could almost say Sasha will win," Meissner said. "So, it's kind of tough."

Or is it?

Assuming Cohen makes the team, and looking at the other competitions the committee will consider, Kwan seems to come out on top. She was the only one to compete at the world championships last year, and she finished fourth. Czisny was sixth at the Grand Prix final, and Liang was seventh at Four Continents last year. Hughes has a bronze medal from the 2005 junior worlds.

Kwan also has scored better under the new judging system. Even though her performance at last year's world championships was far from her best, she scored a 61.22 in the short program and a 113.98 in the free skate for a total of 175.20 points. Of the other four skaters, the best scores are 59.11 (Hughes) for the short, 110.80 (Meissner) for the free skate and 168.32 (Czisny) for the final total.

"I don't have control over what place they give me. I have control over what I do on the ice," Liang said. "Whatever they decide is what they decide. As long as I put out my best, that's all I can do."

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