TURIN, Italy -- The first time I interviewed Michelle Kwan, she was 13. Already the star of the International Ice Castles, a high-performance rink in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, she was preparing for her second senior U.S. championships and dreaming of going to the 1994 Winter Olympics.
She told me that she had learned only a few months before that the Olympics were a competition.
She had been under the impression that they were a place.
"Like Disneyland," she said.
Wide-eyed and innocent, still excited by the deer that would emerge from the nearby pine forest and approach the small cabin where she lived, she could never have imagined then that the Olympics would turn out to be such a cruel place for her.
Her latest Olympic disappointment came in the early hours yesterday morning, when, unable to sleep because of a severely strained groin, she visited a U.S. team doctor in the athletes' village here. They agreed there was little chance she would improve significantly before the women's figure skating competition begins a week from tomorrow.
She immediately informed U.S. figure skating officials that she was withdrawing, creating a place for alternate Emily Hughes, 17, the sister of 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes.
"I would love to compete in my third Olympics," Kwan, dressed in black, said during a news conference a few hours later. "But I love and respect the sport and I think it's all about the United States bringing the best team to the Olympic Games. ...
"I think the best thing for me is to go home and get better. I don't want to be a distraction here."
She did not announce her retirement, but it's safe to speculate that, at 25, she's not thinking about skating in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, assuring that she will be remembered as the best figure skater never to win a gold medal.
She should be remembered for so much more.
She belongs among the greats of women's figure skating, right alongside Sonja Henie, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Katarina Witt. Kwan won five world championships and medaled nine times. She won eight consecutive U.S. championships and nine overall, tying Maribel Vinson's record.
"Michelle Kwan means more to the United States Olympic Committee than maybe any athlete that's ever performed for the United States Olympic Committee," USOC president Peter Ueberroth said yesterday.
"She's a leader, she's been gracious, she's somebody to cherish forever."
It doesn't seem so long ago when she was at her first Olympics, not as a competitor but as an alternate. She had finished second in the 1994 national championships at 13, but the United States had only two berths that year. Nancy Kerrigan successfully petitioned for the second by proving that she had recovered from the injury suffered when she was clubbed in the knee before the national championships in Detroit.
Tonya Harding won the national championship but looked as if she would lose her Olympic berth after it became clear that she knew of the conspiracy to injure Kerrigan. The USOC, however, allowed her to skate when she threatened to sue.
That left Kwan as a spectator in Norway. She seemed to be fine with that, probably because her father, Danny, and her agent, Shep Goldberg, had cautioned her against getting her hopes up that she would be able to skate in the Olympics. Goldberg wouldn't even allow her to say the word Olympics, fining her a quarter whenever she slipped.
Besides, she said one night from her seat near the top row of the rink during a competition, she figured she would be skating for at least three more Olympics.
She had no idea at the time how much work, physical and emotional trauma and luck would be involved in making that happen, but she almost made it.
She finished second at the 1998 Games when Tara Lipinski skated lights out, and was third in 2002 when she wasn't at her best and Sarah Hughes was. It would have taken a miracle for Kwan to even win a medal here. It's more likely that she would have embarrassed herself. Because of injuries, she hasn't skated in a legitimate competition all season.
Cynics have suggested that Kwan never intended to skate here, that she showed up at the opening ceremony so that she could get face time on NBC for the benefit of her sponsors.
But that discounts her competitiveness. She's as tough today as when she was 11 and defied her coach's orders not to take a skills test that would promote her to the senior level if she passed. She did and finished sixth in her first national championships at age 12.
She's as tough as she was when she fired her coach in 2001 and went alone to the Olympics a year later. To question her athletic integrity is like questioning Brett Favre's.
U.S. skater Sasha Cohen, who admits that she used to wish Kwan would retire so that someone else, namely her, could spend time at the top, seemed sincerely sad when she heard yesterday's news.
"I think in a way it kind of humanizes the sport," she said. "She is someone who has been an icon, always been there, and she always has competed and done well. To see that people can be at the top of a sport and still have hard times just humanizes it for the other athletes to know that there are good times and there are bad times. You have to deal with what life gives you."
Kwan teared up once during yesterday's news conference, when asked about missing a chance to win a gold medal.
"It's always been a dream, you know, to win at the Olympics and it's always an honor to represent your country," she said. "But I've learned that it's not about the gold. It's about the spirit of it and about the sport itself.
"I have no regrets. I tried my hardest and, if I don't win the gold, it's OK. I've had a great career. I've been very lucky. This is a sport. It's beautiful."