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20TH WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES

1980 Hopeful Had Similar Misfortune

February 13, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

TURIN, Italy — When Michelle Kwan struggled to land a triple flip Saturday during her first Olympic practice session, Randy Gardner winced from 6,000 miles away.

As the U.S. and world pairs champions, Gardner and partner Tai Babilonia were favored to finish in the top three at the 1980 Lake Placid Games until Gardner injured a groin muscle and the duo had to withdraw. When Gardner learned of Kwan's difficulties, he expected the worst.

"I was watching on TV and I could tell something was wrong," he said by phone Sunday from Southern California, where he's a producer and director for the Fox show "Skating With the Stars" and a choreographer for skaters.

"She couldn't pull her right leg in and I said to myself, 'She's in trouble.' I knew then she'd probably have to pull out. She taps with her right foot and was trying to launch and pull herself in, and she couldn't.

"When I heard way back that she'd been injured prior to this and had a groin pull, I knew it was going to be difficult. Those take months and months to heal. It's an injury that a skater really has to take time off."

Kwan didn't have that luxury, just as Gardner didn't. He injured his groin 10 days before the Santa Monica couple was to leave for the 1980 Games and it was gradually improving -- until Gardner spent several hours in the biting cold, participating in the opening ceremony. Kwan marched in the Turin ceremony on Friday and said she felt soreness in her groin Saturday.

"The similarity in the timeline is incredible," he said. "I was probably out there more than four hours, but as I've heard Michelle say, it's something that you want to do. We had fun."

Gardner, who also works as a technical specialist at figure skating competitions and officiated in the novice and junior pairs events at last month's U.S. championships, said he had worked with Kwan on several skating shows and admired her professionalism.

"She's top-notch, an incredible athlete," he said.

Kwan "absolutely" could have won the gold medal here if she hadn't been injured, he said.

"It's a tough call because nobody saw her much this season," he said. "But I think in her mind, she wanted to go for it and was focusing and was good enough."

Gardner said he hoped Kwan would someday come to terms with this unkind twist of fate.

"I know she's going to be very hard-hit emotionally," he said. "I know from my experience that if she takes care of her body and can get back out there, she will soar. She'll be just great, although she doesn't know it yet.

"In the whole scheme of things, she's a young woman, only 25, and if she wants to skate, she will be terrific. It's the closing of a chapter and opening of a new exciting one for her, and I hope she'll know that."

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