Oh, heck, I'll just get it over and done with: One of my absolute favorite sporting events to watch in the whole wide world is the women's Olympic figure skating competition.
There, I said it.
Now you might reply, "Greg, what's the big deal? Women's figure skating gets the highest TV ratings at the Olympics every time around." Well, yes, but you don't understand. I really like women's figure skating. I'm not a casual observer in the matter. I'm an obsessive fanatic.
I think it goes back to my childhood. My mom loved watching Olympic figure skating, so it was on my TV at a young age. At first I watched just because it was on. I sort of figured out who the Americans were and started rooting for them. Of course, this was back in 1988 when Katarina Witt was dominating everything. I was 8 at the time and didn't understand why my mom enjoyed watching Witt skate. For my part, once I identified Witt as "not an American," I was rooting against her and pulling for Debi Thomas, the American. For some strange and unknown reason, my mom wanted "everyone to do well."
As fate would have it, Witt crushed my youthful exuberance in '88 and won her second Olympic gold medal in a row, solidifying her place in history among the all-time greats. Thomas got the bronze, which from my point of view, was respectable and made me proud to be an American. Of course, had I been the judge, I'd have given Thomas the gold and Witt the icy cold shoulder. But I'm not exactly an unbiased observer, now am I?
The Cold War: During the 1988 Olympics, Canadian silver medalist Elizabeth Manley (left) and American bronze medalist Debi Thomas (right) did their part to contain the Communist threat.
Ever since those '88 Olympics, I basically come out of hibernation every four years to watch these 5' 2" 90-pound international gladiators, or "cold warriors" if you will, battle it out on an unforgiving deathtrap known to us laymen as the ice rink. During this special quadrennial event, I set aside my personal goals and responsibilities to pour all of my energy into my favorite skater, essentially living my life through her every move on the ice. If she succeeds, I feel better about myself. If she fails, then I'm devastated and struggle with self-esteem and patriotic depression. It's a rollercoaster ride like no other; an adrenaline rush that comes but once every four years.
However, women's figure skating is a merciless sport. These lassie assassins train in the dark, early morning hours every day of every week of every month, oftentimes for 10, 11, 12 years in a row before they ever get their Olympic opportunity. And when that time comes, the lights go on and the crowd roars. The pressure is intense. Stray but a little from your routine and that could be the difference between a gold medal and no medal. Or put more bluntly, the difference between having a lifetime of lucrative commercial endorsement deals and a lifetime of sleep-disturbing nightmares about how you blew your one big chance.
I alluded earlier to my "rooting against" certain skaters, and admittedly, I'm not proud of some of my antics over the years. I was probably at my worst during the '92 Olympics. Anytime a foreign skater would stumble, fall, or flat out get robbed by the judges, I would literally stand up and "make some noise." Dances, jigs, fist pumps, pointing at the TV and taunting... everything. Far from simply celebrating my own skater's successes, I delighted in the misery of others. Apparently my outbursts of poor sportsmanship finally set off my mom and she snapped, "Greg! Get out of here and go to your room!"
Yeah, I felt like an idiot, but I had learned my lesson. I shook it off, regrouped, and came back the next night to watch Kristi Yamaguchi become the first American since Dorothy Hamill in 1976 to bring home the gold in women's figure skating. It was beautiful. For the first time in my life, I truly understood what it meant to have the privelige of being an American sitting at home watching the Olympics take place in a country far, far away.
Leading up to the '94 Olympics, Tonya Harding's thugs conspired to whack Nancy Kerrigan's knee just before the U.S. nationals. The assault prevented Kerrigan from competing in the nationals, and nearly kept her out of the Olympics. What a lot of people forget is that if Tonya Harding had been removed from the U.S. women's figure skating team that year, as she should have been, 13-year old Michelle Kwan would have been her replacement. At the time I was 14, so seeing a 13-year old do so well got me to think, "What am I doing with my life?" I then proceded to forget about that question and immersed myself in the Olympic drama. Kerrigan recovered from the injury, faced down her fear, and gave two of the most emotional peformances of any athlete in the twentieth century. The Olympic judges gave her the silver, but the American public will forever give her the gold.
Skating with the enemy: As the rumors swirled during the '94 Olympics, it was surreal to watch Kerrigan (left) and Harding (right) share the ice for warm-ups.
Four years later, 1998, was supposed to be Michelle Kwan's year to claim gold at the Olympics. I was certainly rooting for her, but it wasn't meant to be. Some teenybopper won the gold instead. At least this young'un was an American, so that was sort of okay, but I still had a bitter taste in my mouth. Kwan was the best in the world and I had remembered how she had been robbed of the Olympics four years earlier.
Then came 2002. I was pulling for Kwan more than ever. Yet again, some American young'un came out of nowhere to capture the Olympic gold. I felt like civil war had been declared.
Now 2006 is upon us, and Russia's Irina Slutskaya, the reigning world champion, is favored to win gold this time around.
Slutskaya falling: When I was a naive youth, this would have meant prancing around the living room and taunting the TV set. Now it just means acting like you've been there before.
Sasha Cohen, the reigning U.S. national champion, also is expected to be a top contender.
Note to self: Never get into a kickboxing match with Sasha Cohen.
And while I'm sure that the women's Olympic figure skating will be a great show, I can't help but feel some emptiness right now. After all, the most captivating figure skater of the past decade, Michelle Kwan, recently withdrew from these Olympics due to injury.
Some people were upset that Kwan was even put on the team after sitting out the nationals with a groin injury, but not me. She deserved a spot on the Olympic team over any of those other teenyboppers. As far as I'm concerned, I'd let her go out there and compete in a wheelchair if that's what it took. She's paid her dues and earned the right.
Yes she Kwan: 9 U.S. national championships, 5 world championships, 2 Olympic medals, 1 living legend.
Honestly, when Michelle Kwan first skated onto my parents' TV set in 1994, I was both surprised and inspired to see a 13-year old finish second at nationals and nearly make the Olympic team. From that moment on, I wondered, "How good could she become?"
This past Sunday, twelve years later, I finally received a definitive answer to that lingering question when USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth introduced Kwan at that somber news conference in Torino, Italy:
Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed. She's been a leader, she's been gracious, she's somebody that cares for so many youngsters that are training in our country.