Kwan's exit is as graceful as her skating

Injury forces the two-time medal-winner home - probably dashing her last hopes for an Olympic gold medal.

The day before Michelle Kwan withdrew from the Turin Games and almost surely ended any hope of winning an Olympic gold medal, she was still fighting.

For more than a decade, her career had followed an arc as graceful as any of her trademark passes across the ice - smiling, beautiful, and emphatic: nine-time winner of the national title and five-time world champion.

Yet she sat before the assembled media on Saturday lacking only boxing gloves and a spit cup. The questions were flying: No one had ever seen her more upset than she was at that morning's skate. Yet she would not yield her Olympic dream. She had tweaked a muscle, yes. But she was here to skate, and skate she would.

Then in the predawn hours of Sunday morning, the final diagnosis came in and everything changed. The Olympics have always sounded off-key in Kwan's otherwise symphonic career. By her high standards, a silver and a bronze are medallions of opportunities lost as well as objects of achievement. Yet curiously, by yielding her spot, she may enhance her legacy, not diminish it.

She had, in some ways, qualified for this Olympics by the back door on an injury exemption, pushing out the red-cheeked exuberance of Emily Hughes - no less than the sister of the skater who had won gold in Salt Lake. But just as swimmer Michael Phelps became known as a gentleman as well as an athlete when he yielded his relay spot to a teammate in Athens, this move could be seen as a memorable moment of grace amid an extraordinary skating life.

"Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that ever performed," said Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the USOC.

Officially, her hope of leaving Turin with the gold medal that she has long sought ended after 2 a.m. Sunday morning here, after she was diagnosed with a groin strain that would not allow her to compete. In truth, though, a season of injuries before she ever came to Turin had significantly diminished her chances of beating the top women in the world next week.

So when she skipped the Olympic trial last month, citing injury, then successfully petitioned to be included on the team anyway, it created no small stir. The whispers mounted: She was worthy, surely, but unless she was healthy enough to win gold, why take the Olympic experience away from someone who might never make the team again?

She said she was healthy enough, and she repeated Sunday that this was a new injury; she left America physically ready to compete. Even so, it was probably the only time that the word "controversy" came within two sentences of Kwan. This year, she was not surrounded solely in the golden glow of America's adulation, but also by the persistent shadow of whether she should even be here.

The decision about whom to take to Turin was a difficult one, made more dramatic by the fact that the skater left at home was the sister of Sarah Hughes, who won the gold in 2002. Yet on Saturday, even after the failed practice jump that caused the new injury, Kwan fended off questions about her health, her selection, and her chances: "It's been a struggle for me this year, so I'm just happy to be here."

Ironically, it was her love of being here that might have caused the injury, she said - sitting outside for hours in the chill of opening ceremonies. Yet it was also her love for the Olympics that led her to withdraw, she said Sunday.

"I respect the Olympics too much to compete when I don't feel I can be my best."

With Kwan gracefully stepping aside, the media spotlight now falls on Hughes. Already in the shadow of her sister's golden past, Hughes has just a little over a week before tying up her skates and reaching for her own medal.

"Nothing was definite until the call I got last night," she said during a news conference Sunday. "I was getting ready for the SATs, and now I'm going to Turino."

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