Kwan Withdraws from Olympics

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In the early hours of Sunday morning, Michelle Kwan made the made the most difficult decision of her life. The five-time world champion and two time Olympic medalist pulled out of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games due to an injury she sustained during her first practice session in Torino. "It was hard to make this decision, and one of the toughest I've had to make, but I know it was the right one," she told reporters later on Sunday morning. "I love and respect the sport and it's about bringing the best team to the Olympics. I wouldn't want to be in the way of that. I've said if I'm not 100%, that I would pull out, and I don't feel I can be at my best."

Following Kwan's withdrawal, the US Olympic Committee submitted a petition to replace her with Emily Hughes, the ladies' alternate and younger sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes. Hughes' father John was contacted, along with his daughter, at 8:45 pm EST while the family was having dinner. "Emily expressed her wishes for a quick recovery for Michelle, and was also excited to be part of the US team," said David Raith, executive director of the US Figure Skating Association and the first to inform the Hughes family. By early morning, the media circus had already set up its tents outside the Hughes home in Long Island, New York, and the family had to unplug its phone at 4am so they could get some sleep.

Kwan decided to withdraw after being evaluated by the US team physician in the Olympic Village at 2:15 am. "Due to our findings, our assessment of the injury was that it was a groin strain. For her to continue to train and compete at the level she needs to would put her at further risk of injury, and it was our recommendation that she withdraw," said Dr. Jim Moeller.

When she spoke to reporters at a press conference on Saturday afternoon, Kwan did not let on that she had actually strained a muscle during a fall at the practice session just an hour before. "Yesterday I woke up stiff, so I headed to the rink early to do my usual jump rope and stretching (to warm up before getting on the ice)," she said on Sunday. "Twenty minutes (into the session), I was still stiff, and tried to skate it off, but I was not at ease. I did three jumps, and on the triple flip, when I flipped out, I knew I had done something. At the time I didn't feel I did something immediate." After her press obligations, Kwan returned to the Olympic Village, where she iced her groin and received physiotherapy and an ultrasound. As the day wore on, however, the pain only worsened, and Kwan said "The groin did not feel good at all." She began to realize that she might not be able to compete at the level needed to make the podium in Torino, much less capture the only gold medal that eludes her. "I don' t think in my heart I can be at my best," she said. "I have to be honest with what my body is feeling. At 2:15 (am), I thought I've got to do something about it, get it checked out, so I made some phone calls."

Moeller told Kwan what she was expecting to hear. "I knew I was stiff and knew I was in pain. You don't have to be told you're in pain by someone else," she said. Moeller confirmed that the injury is a new one, and that Kwan' doctor had cleared her to compete in Torino after she had made a full recovery from the earlier injury December that prevented her from skating at the Olympic qualifier in last month. "I had to make the decision to withdraw from the team, and not compete in my third Olympics. I think the best thing is for me to go home. I don't want to be a distraction here," she said.

Stoic throughout the difficult meeting with the media, Kwan was subdued but very controlled, her only emotion slipping out in several tears as she talked about the possibility of a skating career devoid of the Olympic gold medal. "My parents are here, and they want me to be happy, they want their baby to win gold. But I've learned that it's not about the gold, it's about the spirit of it. I've tried my best. If I don't win the gold, it's okay."

And Kwan will certainly be okay. The injury is not a career-threatening one, and she will continue to be a major force in the professional skating world, not to mention the historic legacy she already has in the sport. Kwan may be exiting the Olympic stage, but her presence will continue to be felt, both in Torino and in years to come. Perhaps no one more than Kwan epitomized the classic style of the 6.0 skating tradition, and her dominance in the sport inspired a generation of skaters, including her replacement Hughes, to take their first glides on the ice. It's their turn now to take the stage.