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Kwan Absent at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The US National Figure Skating Championships are under way in St. Louis. The men's and women's short programs were yesterday. We're going to go now to Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today and a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION. She is in St. Louis covering the championships.

Good morning.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN (NPR Contributor): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's talk first about somebody who's not there, Michelle Kwan. The nine-time American champion is not participating. Explain why and tell us what that means for the event.

BRENNAN: Well, she's not participating, Steve, because she's injured. In fact, she's been injured for much of the last four months with various hip injury and now a groin injury, and that's a killer for a skater. Obviously, it's--you know, you've got to land these jumps. And Michelle Kwan's 25. She's been doing this for a long time, and it finally caught up with her a little bit. So she withdrew from the national championship and is petitioning the US Figure Skating Association to be put on the Olympic team for the Olympic Games coming up in Torino next month. And we will see how that turns out Saturday night, although my guess is that she will be put on the team. A little bit of a lifetime achievement award, also, because I still think if she's healthy, she's one of the three best skaters in the United States.

INSKEEP: Just to explain the basics, ordinarily you would have to be at the National Figure Skating Championships and do very well in order to make the Olympic team, right?

BRENNAN: That's exactly right. And in track and field, for example, if someone's sick, the race is run and that's it, or in swimming. But in figure skating, gymnastics, a few other sports, Steve, there are other circumstances, so it's not just based on the competition. And...

INSKEEP: Is that because it's just a more subjective sport, and so there's more room to slip in somebody who was injured during the time of the championships?

BRENNAN: There is that, and it's not a coincidence that gymnastics and others are also subjective sports. I also think it's because you sometimes want to look at more than just that day. And swimming and track and field, for example, have been criticized for not, you know, looking at, say, a whole season vs. just if an athlete gets sick that particular day.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the people who are not injured and who have been able to compete. Who's in the lead in the women's event?

BRENNAN: Sasha Cohen; no surprise there at all. She's 21 years old. She's a perennial silver medalist, and she's finally--looks like she's going to take the lead here and win this competition, Steve. And it's kind of her time. Behind her, though, Emily Hughes is 16 years old. That's--very famous, familiar name in figure skating; her sister, Sarah Hughes, won the gold medal in 2002. And Emily Hughes right now is in second place--a surprise at this point.

INSKEEP: I do have to ask you if Michelle Kwan does get named, as you expect, that means that somebody else who has a great championship here is not going to go. Is that correct?

BRENNAN: That's correct. The third-place finisher would very likely not go. And most of the athletes here, see, this week have talked about that and said they--`We understand that. We know that we're fighting for two spots.' It turns out Kimmie Meissner is 16; Beatrisa Liang is 17; Emily Hughes is 16. There's that sense that maybe they would have another chance in four years. Michelle Kwan, obviously, is kind of that 10,000-pound gorilla in the room, and they know that she's likely to get one of those spots.

INSKEEP: Of course, the women's competition is not the only competition here.

BRENNAN: That's right. And in the men's competition, it's very interesting; Johnny Weir, 21 years old, two-time national champ--no surprise, he's in the lead again. But Michael Weiss, almost 30, is in second place, and that's a bit of a surprise--an old guy hanging in there. And then ice dance, which is not something, Steve, that we pay a lot of attention to, but this year we have to. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto--Tanith Belbin got her US citizenship recently. And they are in first place. They'll win the national title. They could very well win a medal for the United States at the Olympic Games. That's only happened once before: in 1976, a bronze medal for Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns. So there could be a medal in ice dance for the US, which is one of those `Stop the presses!' kind of things.

INSKEEP: We'll be listening for your updates. Christine, thanks very much.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan is a columnist for USA Today and a regular contributor to this program.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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