BOSTON -- For most of a decade, Frank Carroll was the man behind Michelle Kwan's reign over skating's golden era.
Colonel Parker to Kwan's Elvis.
It was a breathtaking decade in which the jet-setting Kwan took American skating to unprecedented heights through 10 years of hanging out with movie stars, platinum-selling recording artists and global leaders, of being whisked from five-star hotels to competitions in souped-up SUVs with a security detail worthy of a presidential candidate.
The fans couldn't get enough of her. Neither could Madison Avenue. And neither could the networks, which created made-for-TV competitions just to get Kwan on in prime time. In a measure of Kwan's cultural status she appeared on "The Simpsons." Even the White House recognized Kwan's star power. Condoleezza Rice called her to help out the State Department as public diplomacy ambassador.
"She was a rock star," said Carroll, who coached Kwan to four of her five World championships.
It's been nearly a decade since Michelle has left the building. Twenty years since the Nancy-Tanya soap opera provided the launching pad that propelled Kwan and, to a lesser degree, Orange County's Sasha Cohen to global fame and fortune.
So the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships women's competition opens at TD Garden on Thursday night, against a decade of dwindling attendance and TV ratings, in search of not only this year's Olympic team but a transcendent women's star that will create the mainstream buzz heading into the Sochi Games that has been absent in American women's skating since the 2006 Olympics. The sport's die-hard fans, U.S. Figure Skating officials and NBC all have their fingers crossed that by the time the last score is posted after the women's free skate Saturday night, American skating will have found a legitimate medal contender.
The next Michelle ... the next Sasha ... the next rock star.
"Absolutely," said Ashley Wagner, the Orange County-based defending two-time U.S. champion. "I think now more than ever we need a ladies medalist. I think that skating in the (U.S.), its popularity is dwindling, (and) it's because we don't have a Michelle Kwan anymore, we don't have a Sasha Cohen and that's something we need to get back.
"We're very lucky that we have a very talented field of ladies but we need to get the consistency back so that the public can really have confidence when they watch us. And going into the Olympics we need a medal now more than ever."
The U.S. hasn't had a women's Olympic medalist since Cohen took the silver at the 2006 Games. The American ladies haven't claimed a World Championship medal since 2006 when Kimmie Meissner and Cohen went 1-3 in Calgary. If you take out the six years Worlds weren't held because of World War II, the American women are in the midst of their longest medal drought at Worlds since 1937.
The absence of a familiar face showing up on the Worlds and Olympic medal podium on a regular basis has robbed American skating of a household name to capture the imagination of non-hardcore fans, the same casual fans who drove the attendance figures and TV ratings to record-setting levels in the 1990s and the first decade of this century.
"Familiarity with somebody who's proving it again and again," Carroll said. "Somebody who brings the house down. Somebody who basically takes your breath away. And with whom have we had that since Michelle? I don't mean to put these girls down. But I don't see that."
Kwan was not only arguably the most gifted women's skater since East Germany's Katarina Witt, she had the good fortune of emerging on the global scene just as the Kerrigan and Harding saga put the sport on A1 and the top of the national nightly news.
"After Nancy and Harding it just became the most popular sport in the world," Carroll said. "And who was right there? Michelle Kwan. She just rode the crest of all of that."
Kwan won the first of nine U.S. titles in 1996 and then a few months later took the first of her five World crowns.
"Don't forget Michelle was a 10-year period," Carroll said. "Also there was this fascination when she was this little kid with a mustache and costumes with shoulder pads and when she skated the dress went around like this because it didn't fit her. And they watched her. They watched her go, go up. And then suddenly when she hit 1996 ... she wasn't this little girl anymore it was like 'Oh, my God. What has happened?' She transformed in front of their eyes into this very beautiful young lady and also there was a great deal of interest with them to see her develop."
While major U.S. competitions are now held in half-empty minor league hockey rinks in places like Ontario and Kent, Wash., Carroll recalled the mob scenes that seemed to follow Kwan everywhere. Once while Kwan was snuck into a New York hotel through an underground entrance, Carroll tried to make it through a crowd of a thousand fans staking out the hotel's front door.
"Thousand people asking me to sign their (autograph) books," Carroll said. "I was the closet thing to Michelle. It was weird. It was like being a rock star. That popularity just doesn't exist anymore in skating. It's gone."
Wagner has come the closest to showing the staying power that has been so noticeably absent in American women's skating since the Kwan era. She is the first woman to successfully defend the U.S. title since Kwan in 1995. A third consecutive U.S. championship would give her significant momentum and raise her mainstream profile as a legitimate medal contender heading into Sochi. In order to three-peat she will likely have to hold off teenage ingenue Gracie Gold, now coached by Carroll. That creates an additional element of intrigue also missing since Cohen nipped at Kwan's heels.
It wasn't a mob of a thousand, but a line of young girls and their mothers queued up to get Wagner's autograph or have their photo taken with her after a training session near Harvard this week. Standing a few feet away, Carroll recalled another New England mother and daughter nearly 20 years earlier. Carroll found himself walking out of the 1996 Skate America in Springfield, Mass., and another Kwan triumph behind a mother and her daughter.
"And the mother was saying, 'I want you to remember tonight sweetheart because this was one of the greatest experiences of your life,'" Carroll said. "'You have seen someone who is incomparable and somebody who is a legend and you should never forget it.' And I'm behind her and well, god, what a fabulous thing to say to your kid."
U.S. Figure Skating officials -- and the suits at 30 Rock -- can only hope there are similar conversations as the crowd steps out of TD Garden on Saturday into another frigid New England night, Sochi moving ever closer beneath the stars.
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