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Kwan’s graceful withdrawal

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Americans expect their athletes to show grace under pressure in competition, then show it again in their attitudes and personal lives. They want to believe that stardom in sports remains ennobling.

That happens so infrequently, one wonders why Americans bother to hold to the hope. But when an athlete comes along who lives up to the ideal, attention must be paid.

So it is with figure skater Michelle Kwan and her gracious withdrawal from the Winter Olympic Games.

In the world of figure skating, Kwan has been the bridesmaid but never the bride. In Salt Lake City she was the odds-on favorite to claim a gold medal, until a young phenom named Sarah Hughes swept in and stole the show. The same thing happened four years before when upstart Tara Lipinski skated by Kwan to snatch the gold.

After fighting back from an injury, Kwan was named to the U.S. Olympic team once again this year. Many hoped for a fairy-tale ending since this appeared to be her last chance for golden glory. Alas, she was forced to retreat.

Yet, by bowing out with an air of dignity and gratitude, the five-time world champion may have given herself a legacy that glitters more than gold — a legacy of goodwill.

Although seen as the grande dame of world figure skating, Kwan is only 25 years old. That says something about how her sport has skewed toward youth in an attempt to add more athleticism. It also means she now has many years ahead to choose her course. One hopes — and assumes — she will use her maturity and wisdom to further a sense of decency in sport and in the world. She already is a favorite among the captains of media, industry and government. And though personal agents are prone to gush, Kwan's agent, Shep Goldberg, hit close to home when he said, "Michelle's character, class and integrity are what make her what she is, not the color of her medals."

In the end, at a time when American athletics are riddled with scandal — from steroids to gambling — Michelle Kwan didn't need to win the gold this year. In the minds of Americans, she is golden herself. Little girls may look to this year's winners and want to be like them. The wisest among them, however, will look at Michelle Kwan and emulate her amazing ability to remain self-possessed without becoming self-obsessed.

In our book, Michelle Kwan — like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill before her — is a skater for the ages.