Sunday, November 20, 2005


The Priestess and the Imp

"Two Faces" by wingspan

I caught Irina Slutskaya's winning performance at the Cup of China this morning on ESPN2, and I have to note that, since overcoming her multiple illnesses, she has blossomed into such a delightful creature that it's hard not to smile every time she opens her mouth. Everything she says and does is so genuine and sweet that you just want to pinch those plump, rosy cheeks of hers and have a good giggle with her, even if she is 26 years old and one of the most powerful athletes on the planet.

On the ice as well, her bubbly personality burns through the lackluster of her more rudimentary skating, and makes it shine. Some may wince at the use of the word lackluster to describe the current world champion, but despite her virtuosic jumping skills and less impressive, but still laudable, spinning prowess (I know everyone thinks she "owns" the Biehlmann spin these days, but she doesn't get enough momentum for my taste, no matter how perfect her ambidextrous form), she hasn't really progressed that much over the years in the elegance and expression departments. Yeah, she's a hell of a lot more graceful than the plodding, pumping jumping jack of a teenager that burst on the scene over ten years ago, but she's first and foremost a jock on the ice. I find it devastatingly charming when I see her take a big sniff or wipe her nose with the back of her hand (nonchalantly, she imagines) in the middle of some complicated piece of footwork. Still, like I said, her spritely personality and her unassailable jumps make her seem like nothing more than the world's most talented imp, leaping around to spread glee throughout the land.

And then we have Michelle Kwan, who has gone through the opposite learning curve. At 25, she's already exhibiting signs of "old lady syndrome," which is what I call it when skaters of a certain age start shying away from the more difficult combinations and seem less confident of the ones they still do. Okay, that's harsh, but it's her lack of jumping adventuresomeness that has kept her out of the gold medal slot at the Olympics, to the great delight, I am sure, of America's indominatable teen terrors, Tara Lypinski and Sara Hughes, both of whom out-combinationed Kwan to the top spot.

But the way she skates, the emotion she pours into every stroke, glide and stretch, the heartwrenching looks on her face that seem to embody the very crux of the human paradox, the energy she can sustain in a way that makes her program seem like one, long, deep, cleansing breath, and those achingly gorgeous spirals--for all of this, and for the extra dimension that opens up when a skater gives as much as she does, she is easily one of the all-time greats, even if she hadn't tied the record for world chapionship wins--or Olympic near misses. She is a skater whose skating has touched something so deep inside me that I have cried, and that is a true gift.

I once had a dream about Michelle Kwan. It was set in the future, and the ice skating world was dominated by cybernetically enhanced twelve-year-old quintuple-jumping freaks. All ages and sexes were mixed in the event I conjured in my dreamworld, which seemed to be a mix between the Olympics and Rollerball (the original, not the remake). The contestants were national heroes, and competed against each other in fierce battle rather than chivalrous competition.

There was buzz in the stadium that a surprise entrant would appear, and appear she did, quietly, as the crowd held its collective breath. Michelle Kwan was about 50, with a shaved head and dressed in the simple brown linen of a Buddhist nun (though a Buddhist nun whose robes have been designed by Vera Wang, I'm sure). She had spent the last decade exploring the unknown through the combination of prayer and figure skating in a remote village in the Nepalese countryside, and now she was back to teach the world what she had learned from the great unseeing eye on the vast ice of heaven.

As she took her place in the rink, the skating surface seemed to become more transparent, and in the high reaches of one of the corners, a group of a hundred Buddhist monks stood in the shadows and began chanting. Kwan skated slowly at first, doing deeper and deeper edges that led her into tight-laced school figures, then spins, and finally, as she took off for what seemed to be a triple loop, she levitated, rotated slowly two, three times, then rose higher, did a double flip with a twist, and landed ever so lightly on a perfect right-outer-back edge. The crowd could not cheer because half of it was in tears. The other half had fainted. In my dream, instead of giving Kwan yet another set of perfect scores, the world skating federation decided to make her its first official boddhisatva and high priestess, and from that day on, skating events became sacred occasions, joining the many new forms of worship that had been slowly replacing the creaky, old concept of organized religion over the past few decades.

My dreams are often absurd--this one's actually a pretty understandable one: Michelle Kwan really does make me feel as if I'm watching something sacred when she skates. Slutskaya, on the other hand, reminds me that I'm experiencing something born of pure joy.

This year, these two young old-timers will meet in their final World Championship and Olympic bids, and much has been made of the difference in their approaches, records and styles over the years. Will it be the imp, springing her way to the top with a mischievous grin, or the priestess, skating her heart out to heal the world?

Or will it be yet another teen terror, such as Alissa Czisny, who is not only another crackerjack jumper and spinner, but is far more polished and refined than the last two terrors ever were (okay, she's two years older than Lypinski or Hughes were, too, but she's still a teenager)? Luckily, the other teen terror, Mao Asada, who snatched second place at the Cup of China out from under her far more experienced Japanese compatriot, 2004 World Champion Shizuka Arakawa, is too young to compete on the official international circuit in the senior division. Whew!

Whatever happens, both the imp and the priestess will go down in history as two of the most talented and most openly honest, engaging and genuine sportspersons in any field. Good luck to them both; and I can't wait for their first head-to-head of the season once Michelle gets back on the ice following her recent injuries, which may not be until the Olympics!

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