Confirmed Olympic berth different from Olympic gold

By skating in a practice session nearly two weeks after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Michelle Kwan proved Friday that she is healthy enough to skate. And in return, she was granted a pass to compete in her third Olympics next month in Torino.

Did we really need a dog-and-pony show, complete with a panel of skating officials and pool reporters flying out to a secluded rink in Los Angeles, to prove that Kwan has the ability to skate? Anyone who knows what a Zamboni is could have told us that -- even if Kwan was told she could only practice wearing one skate.

What we really want to know couldn't be answered in a practice session. It couldn't be answered in a news conference. It can only be answered next month in Italy.

Can Kwan finally win an Olympic gold medal?

We don't really care or need to know the details of how she is feeling today, or how many times she fell or what triples she did or didn't land. That's because no one -- not her coach, not skating officials, not even Kwan herself -- has that crystal ball.

What we do know is that every other time Kwan has been predicted to win, she hasn't. Nearly everyone thought the Olympic gold was hers for the taking when she headed into the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. The only one who didn't share those expectations was Tara Lipinski, who literally ran off the ice with the gold. Kwan skated tentatively and settled for silver.

And we were all duped again four years later, when Kwan entered the Games as a top contender but left Salt Lake City with a bronze. Sarah Hughes was the gold medalist, followed by Russia's Irina Slutskaya.

So now we are being told, at least by a group of skating judges -- who calculated that they have a combined 125 years of judging experience -- that yes, this time, Kwan indeed is in grasp of the gold medal.

"It is truly the opinion of this monitoring committee that Michelle could win the Olympics," said Bob Horen, who chairs the committee that selected the Olympic team and was part of the panel that evaluated Kwan's skating Friday.

Kwan didn't compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships earlier this month in St. Louis because she said she has been slowed by a pulled groin muscle. Sasha Cohen won the national title, earning an automatic berth to the Olympics. Kimmie Meissner, the U.S. silver medalist, was also named to the team. Emily Hughes, the kid sister of Sarah, was third.

Typically, the top-three finishers at nationals go on to compete in the Olympics, but Kwan petitioned for a medical bye, and it was granted under one condition: She had to have her skating evaluated. Kwan passed the test. Emily Hughes will stay home and train for the World Championships in March.

"We have no control over [the decision]," John Hughes, Emily's father, told ESPN.com before Friday's announcement. All along, the Hughes family seemed to be under the impression that it would take a great miracle for Emily to make the Olympic team. She just celebrated her 17th birthday on Thursday, getting the iPod she had hoped for, just not an Olympic berth.

"There's nothing to be sad about," Bonni Retzkin, Hughes' coach, told ESPN.com. "Her attitude about his whole thing has been wonderful. I would think Emily's wonderful if she did get to go to the Olympics, and I still think Emily's wonderful even though she's not going."

Is it hard to be so close though?

"Yeah, we're so close, but it's better than being so far. We'll take close. Close is good," Retzkin said. "If you asked me yesterday what was going to happen, I would've told you this was probably going to happen. Hey, we're the new kid on the block. We've got to pay our dues, so to speak. As far as I'm concerned, Emily's a winner."

Retzkin added that she and Emily have not decided what they'll do during the Olympics.

On Friday, Kwan performed her long and short programs in a span of about 12 minutes in a secluded practice session in Los Angeles. She wore a simple outfit, not a beaded costume, and only a few close family members, her coach and a group of judges and officials, a couple of reporters and rink employees were in attendance.

The five members of the panel made the unanimous decision to put Kwan on the team after deliberating for just one hour.

"It feels awesome," said Kwan, who was informed she made the team less than three hours after she skated. "When I first put in the petition, I believed I'd be 100 percent for the Olympics and I still believe it."

The Kwan question will be the saga throughout the Olympics (only if Bode Miller doesn't keep opening his mouth). Heck, Kwan was the story in St. Louis and she wasn't even hanging out in the same time zone as the other skaters. Will Kwan, once and for all, fill that one hole in her otherwise stellar résumé? A nine-time U.S. champion and a five-time world champion, it's incredible to think that someone of Kwan's caliber hasn't achieved the ultimate prize.

Now, she believes, the third time will be the charm.

"I think I have a shot," Kwan said.

But when you truly evaluate what Kwan did Friday -- and perhaps, more importantly, what she did not do -- it is hard be believe that, yes, Torino will be Kwan's time. There is no doubt that Kwan can light up an arena unlike any other skater. Her trademark spirals leave audiences breathless. She has made fans stand up from their seats. She's made them cry. You can't help but pull for her.

Yet, her downfall is that she has never been able to keep up with the young guns technically when it counts the most. When Lipinski pulled off her upset in Nagano, she not only out-skated Kwan, but she out-jumped her, as well. Lipinski landed a triple-triple combination. Kwan followed a conservative route and didn't attempt one.

In Salt Lake City, Kwan was the leader after the short program. But then along came Hughes, who bested everyone by landing not one, but two triple-triple combinations. Again, Kwan didn't land one.

So now Kwan is 25, and she said she has been hampered by a groin pull and hip injuries. The last time the public saw her skate, in a made-for-TV, American-Idol-style "competition" in Boston in December, she did not land a triple -- let alone a triple-triple combination.

She acknowledged Friday that many of the international skaters have been landing such difficult maneuvers. All Kwan had to do was watch the U.S. Championships to see that Meissner landed two of them in her long program. Meissner doesn't have the same presence on the ice that Kwan has, but she has landed a triple axel in competition, a feat Kwan has never attempted.

In Kwan's much-ballyhooed practice session Friday, she fell on a double axel, the jump that she said caused the groin injury. Kwan said she only started trying double axels again Thursday, and to her credit, she landed two more right after her program music ended. Kwan landed four clean triples in her long -- interestingly, Emily Hughes landed four clean triples at nationals this month -- and said she plans to have six triples in her Olympic routine.

The officials who attended the session offered her tips on how to improve her program, most notably in her footwork, but said that most of her elements would be highly rated under the new judging system. The only time Kwan has competed under the new scoring system was at the World Championships last March when she placed fourth.

"I have a lot to work on," Kwan said. "I've got to take advantage of the seconds and minutes before the Olympics."

Perhaps the best news of the day for Kwan fans is that she had her game face on, and she performed two programs back to back -- a feat few skaters nowadays would attempt, especially under the intense scrutiny she has been under these days.

It shows she's got both stamina and moxie. Clearly, it was a strong gamesmanship move and one that wasn't lost on the skating panel that was evaluating her. Horen, for one, was impressed. In fact, when Kwan prepared to skate her short program just a few minutes after her long program music had ended, he was a bit confused. "I said, 'What are you doing, Michelle?'"

Truth be told, no one knows what Michelle is doing or what tricks she'll pull out of her hat next month. She doesn't even know if she'll attend the Opening Ceremonies.

So now, after a day of guessing and wondering and evaluating, we go to bed with nothing. We'll have to do something we in the media never like to do: Sit and wait.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.