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  • Saturday, April 4, 1998

    Kwiatkowski brings career to a memorable end

     MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- With the crowd on its feet cheering wildly, Tonia Kwiatkowski covered her face with her hands, looked up and with tears in her eyes mouthed the word, "Wow!"
     For a performance she didn't think she'd get to give, for the last skate of her amateur career, this was one to remember.
     "I knew I had it in me," she said, still teary-eyed 20 minutes after she finished. "o be at the world championships, to be in your own country and to do so well, it's kind of overwhelming at the moment."
     Kwiatkowski's inspired free skate Saturday night lifted her to sixth place in the World Figure Skating Championships, her best finish ever in a major international competition.
     Not bad for someone who wasn't supposed to be here. Kwiatkowski was fourth in the national championships in January -- good, but not good enough to put her on the Olympic or world championship team. It was a bitter disappointment for Kwiatkowski, who at 27 was the grand old lady of U.S. figure skating.
     She already had her college degree. And she was skating against teeny-boppers who weren't even born when she moved to the senior level. Yet she hung on, wanting one more shot at the Olympics.
     Instead, she watched from home and began the process of getting on with her life. Then Olympic champion Tara Lipinski came down with a viral infection and decided to skip the world championships, giving Kwiatkowski the last chance she wanted.
     "I was lucky to come," said Kwiatkowski, who was eighth in the 1996 world championships. "When I see Tara, she gets two big hugs from me, one for winning the Olympics and one for giving me the opportunity to be here."
     Kwiatkowski was hardly perfect this week. She was out of medal contention after finishing eighth in the short program. She two-footed two jumps in her free skate, and had to hold on to save her triple flip.
     But her spins were lovely, and her age gives her a grace few other skaters can match. More than anything, though, it was her guts and determination the crowd appreciated.
     The audience rose to its feet as she brought her program to a close with a whirling spin. The cheers were the loudest of the night -- even louder than those for fellow American Michelle Kwan, who won her second world title.
     Kwiatkowski was overwhelmed by it all, barely holding back the tears until she got off the ice. As she launched herself into the arms of Carol Heiss Jenkins and Glyn Watts, her longtime coaches, she started sobbing.
     "Carol and Glyn told me to enjoy it and have a really good time, and I can honestly say I did. And the crowd was just phenomenal," she said. "I don't think I've ever, ever performed in front of a crowd like this."
     Kwiatkowski had said all week that she didn't care what kind of marks she got or where she finished. She just wanted to end her long career with a performance she could be proud of, one she'll look back on and cherish.
     Even when the crowd booed at some of her marks -- she got a 4.9 for technical merit -- Kwiatkowski just laughed. She got what she came for. Now she can move on.
     "This was a bonus on my year," she said. "It's been a great ride. But it's time to get off."


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