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Kwan Pullout Shuffles U.S. Skating's Deck

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To talk more about what Michelle Kwan's withdrawal from the competition means for the U.S. Figure Skating Team, we turn to USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, who's in Turin.

Hello.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Journalist, USA Today): Hello Renee.

MONTAGNE: Hello. So is this the end of Michelle Kwan's career?

Ms. BRENNAN: It may well be. She's 25, she'll turn 26 in July. That's ancient in figure skating years. And she's had an incredible career. Nine national titles, five world championships, two Olympic medals. But it looks like she'll go away without an Olympic gold medal.

I still think she's probably the most visible skater ever, coming of age as the Tanya-Nancy TV boom came into figure skating. And probably the most beloved. So her reputation is set. But it looks like we may have seen the last of her. And that's a shame, because she was a great competitor as well as a very deserving champion.

MONTAGNE: And Michelle Kwan is being replaced by Emily Hughes. She's just 17 years old. What are her prospects?

Ms. BRENNAN: Renee, it's very interesting. She hasn't been at the Olympic Games, of course. She's been at home in Great Neck, New York, in a routine that may turn out to be very beneficial for her. Training at her own rink, not getting caught up in the hub-bub of the Olympic Games or the Opening Ceremonies. So she'll fly over here with plenty of time to get ready for the women's short program next week.

I think for Emily a top ten finish, a very energetic performance, which she always gives. I think that would be the best thing to expect for her going into these Olympic Games.

MONTAGNE: And the pairs competition is set for tonight. Does the United States have a hope of a medal there?

Ms. BRENNAN: I don't think so. John Baldwin, Rena Inoue are in sixth place after the short program. And I think there are Russians and Chinese, one through five. So I think it would be unlikely for them to break through.

But they're doing something very interesting. It's a throw triple axel, really stretching the limits in a sport that's never been known for being a sport but for all the shenanigans and the subplots. All of a sudden figure skating is really looking like a sport.

They are doing this throw where he throws her and she rotates three and a half times in the air, which is really quite remarkable. The first time ever done at the Olympic Games. It's worth a lot of points, and because of a new scoring system that many people have heard bout, Renee, the reality is they were able to move into sixth place and be at least within three points of a bronze medal. That would never have happened in the old system.

So fun to watch. They will do that again, that throw triple axel, tonight in the long program.

MONTAGNE: And even though they got fewer points for style or artistic merit, this one piece of action really jumped them up?

Ms. BRENNAN: Oh, it certainly did. And this new scoring system, you know, people are watching, I'm sure they're saying, what happened to the 5.7's and the 5.8's? And those are gone and replaced by a points system that, while it does have its flaws, the reality is it does give a value to everything you do on the ice, every element. And because Baldwin and Inoue are doing something that is so remarkable, they're getting more points and it's putting them in the mix to at least even think about a medal, which would have been unheard of in the old system.

MONTAGNE: Christine Brennan is a columnist for USA Today. Thanks very much, Christine.

Ms. BRENNAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: The latest Olympic results and NPR's daily Turin diary are at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.