The Power of the Olympic Rings

by Sarah Hoffman, Special to U.S. Figure Skating Online
Michelle Kwan, with father Danny at her side, expresses her joy during the short program at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Photo by Dave Black

(7/1/05)- So what is it about those five rings? So neatly stacked on top of one another, linking together the dreams and realities of little kids who grow up to maybe, just maybe, find themselves competing on top of them. Is it “just another competition with a cool insignia,” as Johnny Weir said in a recent online interview, or is it more?

Even athletes who have already reached their dream of winning gold in one Olympics sometimes press further by trying to win another four or eight years later. Manuel Guerra, Paralympic gold medal sledge hockey player, said that after winning in 2002 he thought he'd be satisfied.

“I was satisfied for about two weeks,” he said.

Every athlete now committed to trying to make the 2006 Olympic team has echoed another – that there's a hunger, a passion, and yet an incredible perspective behind every individual's dream. There are the Bode Millers and the Michelle Kwans who have come so close to that gold but have had to settle for silver or bronze.

And yet, they have stayed in the hunt, determined not by that one medal missing from their collections, but by the drive to beat their best, to walk that long, winding journey from one Olympic Village to another, just to be on that path.

Kwan has done it twice – three times, technically, as she was an alternate in Lillehamer at the tender age of 13. After sitting high up in the stands watching the 1994 showdown unfold before her, she rose, and kept rising, until she finally reached her dream of skating on Olympic ice in Nagano in 1998. After just missing gold, she immediately committed to 2002.

Despite little bumps in her road, she pressed forward, winning three World titles and four U.S. titles between those two Olympics. In Salt Lake City, she again missed gold by faltering in the free skate and landed with bronze.

So many thought the 2002 World Championships would be her swan song – they were wrong. She bounced back with an undefeated season in 2003, winning her fifth World title and seventh U.S. title. Taking it day by day, she followed that up with two more U.S. titles and two gritty showings at the World Championships, completing her gold-and-silver World medal collection with a bronze.

Throughout those three years, Kwan never publicly committed to going for Olympic gold one more time. On May 26, during an interview on The Today Show, she finally did say those words so many of her fans have longed to hear.

“This is what I want to do,” she said in an interview later that day. “I love skating.”

Simple words for such a seemingly complex emotion.

Kwan was bitten by that Olympic bug when she was just 7 years old, already a skater for two years but still so innocent of everything that came with that goal.

“I was joking how at that time I thought I could just sign up and go,” she said. “It's a long process.”

As the sport changes, and new faces come and go, Kwan has learned to embrace everything that comes with this uphill battle.

“I'm always up for a challenge,” she proclaims – a testament to her success over the years.

A veteran of the sport, admittedly these last three years have not been as easy for the champion as they were in the last Olympic cycle. Kwan does not let that weigh her down.

“I feel wiser,” she said. “I feel that I need to benefit from my experiences, and use my knowledge to listen to myself, and push myself in a way that I can end up ahead.”

Perhaps this is what has kept Kwan going for well over a decade at the senior level, through three full Olympic cycles. Mentally, she is almost always prepared. Every medal she has won or missed by just a hair, every competition entered and always finished, she takes into perspective.

As a favorite for gold under those Olympic rings, the pressure can be enormous. Many great athletes have failed to even medal because of the all-consuming weight upon their shoulders. And that silver in 1998? That bronze in 2002?

“I don't believe that one competition can define you,” Kwan said. “I've had some good moments and bad moments, but it's all about the Olympic spirit, and the sport itself.”

Alpine skier Bode Miller agreed. Twice a silver medalist at the Salt Lake City Games, the World Cup champion understands what it means to be one of the best in your sport yet still come just short of gold.

“There's a lot of times at the Olympics where you see somebody who has no chance of medaling, or no chance of doing anything successful in the minds of the people who think success is gold medals or silver medals,” he said. “And what they come out with is an amazing experience. They come out of it with a success they define themselves.”

Which is exactly what Kwan, like so many other athletes, has done.

“I can always see light at my dark spots,” she said, reflecting on her long career and the wisdom she has attained through it. Never crippled by defeat, those little bumps have only lit the fire in her quest to go for it yet again.

The Olympics.

There is a certain something that brings a tear to the eye or a pull in the stomach when we see those rings, hear that anthem, or finally see that flame shining through our city streets. As spectators, aspiring youngsters with stars in our eyes, and even the greatest champions, it seems to tug at us all.

“For us, people don't realize, it's not that gold. It's not that ‘one,'” says Kwan. “It's about being in that sport and loving it for what it is. It's about the journey.”

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