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Monday, January 29, 2007
Skating survived just fine without Kwan, Cohen

By Amy Rosewater
Special to ESPN.com

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Face it.

Michelle Kwan didn't make it. Neither did Sasha Cohen.

This past week marked the second consecutive season Kwan hasn't competed at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. It's the first time since 2002 that Cohen hasn't skated. Kwan is rehabbing her injuries. Cohen is off in Hollywood.

Believe it or not, we all lived to tell about it.

There's been talk that they might return to the competitive world, but most everyone in the sport knows that such comebacks would be so difficult. Women around the world are landing triple axels and triple-triple combinations. You don't develop those kinds of jumps off the ice.

But that didn't prevent the skaters who actually competed here this week from being asked about The Big Two.

"What's it like not to have Michelle and Sasha here?"
"How strange is it?"
"Do you miss them?"

Enough already.

Naturally, it's different. You can't just erase a nine-time champion from your mind. You can't make images of elegance and style disappear. My memories of Kwan and Cohen as skaters and as people will be fond. I could watch "Salome" until I have grandchildren. How I wish Kwan could have an Olympic gold medal around her neck. As for Sasha, I could be happy just watching her skate around the ice. Truly, they are among some of the best skaters I have ever seen.

But their absence in Spokane didn't mark the sign of the apocalypse.

Life went on in football after Johnny Unitas. Baseball moved ahead without the Babe. Basketball even survived without Michael Jordan.

Skating moved ahead after Peggy Fleming. After Dorothy. After Kristi. After Scott. After Brian. Even after Tonya and Nancy.

The end of one era doesn't mean anyone suddenly develops amnesia. It's why fans love watching the historical montages of skating on scoreboards. It's why figure skating fans are giddy about YouTube.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to like Tenley Albright and Kristi Yamaguchi. You can still love Kwan and Cohen. Or one or the other, as the case might be.

There's no question skating has reached a crucial crossroads. But anyone who was in Spokane this past week knows skating still has plenty of life left in it.

While most of the nation has been caught up in Peyton vs. Rex and Super Bowl mania, the city of Spokane was wrapped up in figure skating. The crowds were incredible. Even the bars here had signs for the skaters. The city smashed the all-time record for ticket sales at nationals by more than 20,000 tickets. The previous record was set in Los Angeles in 2002, an Olympic season with the Games in Salt Lake City.

Sure, Spokane doesn't have any pro teams, and its biggest sports draw is at Gonzaga. It is about as far away, both culturally and geographically, from Miami as possible in the United States. But to its credit, there have been plenty of bigger cities that have hosted skating events, even back in the good old days, that didn't gather such support.

And the skaters didn't disappoint.

What many fans will cherish from these championships, which were supposed to be the bor-ing post-Olympic year, were the performances of skating's next generation:

• Evan Lysacek's brilliant performances en route to his first title.

• Ryan Bradley, a veteran at this competition who finally pulled through with an entertaining and world-qualifying free skate.

• Kimmie Meissner clinching her first title, even if it wasn't her best.

• Emily Hughes coming close to winning her first championship.

• Alissa Czisny rebounding from a disappointing season to win the women's free skate and qualify for the world championships.

• Rachael Flatt made her senior debut and landed a triple lutz-triple toe in the free skate.

• Strong showings from two 13-year-old girls in the junior competition and one triple axel performed by a novice man.

• Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, an unheralded pairs team scraping by in Michigan, performed such an incredible triple twist that the Chinese teams are certain to take notice at worlds.

• A young ice dancing team with Meryl Davis and Charlie White was so solid that they are pushing training partners and Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

Those who truly love skating will be glad to see a bright forecast.

Part of what makes skating great is that we continue to see the legends at events. Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, for example, was very visible at these championships, and the sport even inducted (posthumously) Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon, into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Peggy Fleming and Dick Button have been staples of skating television. Many other former skating stars, including three-time U.S. pairs champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, stood at the boards coaching young skaters.

Brian Boitano was in Spokane and made it a point to talk with Czisny and offer her advice. Boitano said that later in the competition, Czisny's coach thanked him for the talk, saying it meant so much to her skater.

"It really meant a lot to me," Boitano said. "I think she has so much potential."

Boitano understands the need for the sport to reach out to this new generation, especially in this strange time of transition. He has been working with U.S. Figure Skating to bring more former champions to nationals so a bridge can be built between the past and future. All the living American Olympic champions gathered in St. Louis at the 2006 championships; many medalists returned to watch these nationals, as well. Boitano hopes many more will be at nationals in 2008.

Back in the days of true amateur skaters (some of you might remember a time when skaters couldn't earn money and compete), there was a natural progression of skaters. A champion would be born, be crowned and move on to the Ice Follies. There is no such natural progression these days. Some of the so-called amateurs (eligible skaters) of today make more money than the pros.

Sure, some of them want to stick around in the competitive world because they like to compete. But it's also better for their pocketbook.

If things had worked out how many of us thought they would, here's a look at the way skating history would have been written:

• Kwan would have won the Olympic gold medal in Nagano.

• Tara Lipinski would have been second in Nagano and gone on to win in Salt Lake in 2002.

• Sarah Hughes would have been the gold medalist in 2006.

Of course, none of that actually happened, and it's part of the reason skating is where it's at in 2007. It is what it is.

Instead of bemoaning the fact that certain very talented and very popular skaters aren't competing, let's start appreciating some of the talent that is entering the scene.

What does the sport need to do to make these new kids stars? What does it need to do to start having people ask the likes of Flatt, new to the senior ranks, what it was like to compete against Meissner?

U.S. Figure Skating is trying some new things to promote the sport to a younger generation online. It plans to showcase the two top junior women's skaters, Mirai Nagasu and Caroline Zhang, in a made-for-TV event in April. You might catch Meissner in a new Subway TV commercial she's taping in New York City on Tuesday.

It's not the end of the 6.0 system that has dented the sport's popularity. You can dole out 6.0s or 106.0s. Skating will always be a personality-driven sport. If all we see are two people and they're no longer in the spotlight, what's left?

For a week in Spokane, the skaters were the stars. Even the ones who fell on doubles drew cheers. Maybe the rest of the country will figure out what Spokane learned this week. No, they're not perfect. No, they haven't come close to legendary status.

Just give them a chance.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.