U.S. skating faces uncertain future

Saturday, February 25, 2006

TURIN, Italy -- Get ready for a bumpy ride to Vancouver, U.S. figure skating fans.

Michelle Kwan is all but gone for good, Sasha Cohen could be next and there's no telling how long before there's another star with their wattage.

The men are solid, but they've got a ways to go before they can be serious contenders for gold. Pairs are a disaster.

The brightest spot is in, of all places, ice dance.

"The goal for us right now is to be on the medals stand in the 2010 winter Olympic games in every discipline," David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, said last month. "That's going to take some doing in some of the areas, and I look forward to the challenge of doing that."

The results at these games showed it might be an even bigger challenge than anticipated.

American skaters won two medals in Turin, silvers by Cohen and ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. But Cohen fell into her prize -- literally -- and the United States was nowhere close to being in the same league as Russia, which fell one event shy of a gold-medal sweep.

"I think sometimes there's definitely too much pressure on winning a medal," said Kimmie Meissner, who was sixth at her first Olympics. "It's not always about what color medal you get, it's more about if you have a good time and you take away a good experience."

That's a nice sentiment to put on a poster, but Americans want medals.

There's been at least one American woman on the podium every year since 1964.

Though Kwan never won an Olympic gold, she defined her sport for a decade with five world titles and nine U.S. crowns.

Try as she might, Cohen never escaped Kwan's shadow. When she finally won her lone U.S. title last month in St. Louis, it was lost in the furor over the groin injury that kept Kwan out of the national championship and ultimately doomed her in Turin.

After winning the short program, Cohen blew any chance at Olympic greatness with two falls in the first minute Thursday.

Cohen said she plans to compete at the world championships next month in Calgary. Beyond that, her plans are less certain. Her body is already showing signs of wear and tear at 21 and she'll be 25 in Vancouver, the same age when Kwan broke down.

"I'd love to be there. I love the Olympics, but you never know if you're going to be competitive and if your body is going to hold up," Cohen said. "I'll take it day by day and see where the road goes."

Depth isn't the U.S. women's problem. Meissner, 16, and Emily Hughes, 17, were sixth and seventh, impressive showings for their first Olympics.

On the men's side, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir were fourth and fifth, and both plan to compete through Vancouver. Neither even tried a quadruple jump in the free skate, and Lysacek fell on his in the short program.

None of the U.S. pairs teams was close to a medal, and that's not likely to change in the next four years.

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