Steve Deslich/KRT/Newscom
Stephen M. Silverman
February 12, 2006 09:00 PM

Michelle Kwan, five-time figure skating world champion and nine-time U.S. title winner, withdrew from the Winter Olympics Sunday in Torino, blaming a severe groin strain.

“Taking myself off the team is the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make,” said the 25-year-old Los Angeles native, who won a silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. “But it’s the right decision.”

Fighting back tears during a press conference to announce her decision Kwan said, “I can’t even think past right now. It’s physical pain that’s keeping me from performing and skating. But it’s also emotional pain as well.”

Kwan had only joined the team on Jan. 27, after a selection panel decided she was healthy enough to compete in the wake of a previous groin injury. Her place in the competition that begins Feb. 21 will go to Emily Hughes, who had been bumped from the team to accommodate Kwan.

“I feel that it’s unfortunate that she’s injured,” Hughes, the younger sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, said in a Sunday conference call with the press. “She’s accomplished so much throughout her career.”

On Monday’s Today show, Hughes said she plans to head to Torino “in the next few days,” and added, “Michelle has been very gracious to me, and I respect her on and off the ice.”

Kwan suffered her latest injury while practicing on Saturday. “This injury prevents me from skating my best, and I’ve said all along that if I couldn’t skate to the level that I expected from myself, I’d withdraw from the team,” Kwan said.

Because Kwan’s quest for her first gold medal was expected to be one of the most compelling stories of the Winter Games, NBC was said to be distressed at her departure – and offered her a job as a commentator. She declined the offer, however, reports the Associated Press. Kwan said she did not wish to be a distraction for the remaining members of the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, according to NBC Sports spokesman Michael McCarley.

In other news from Torino, the great American hope, skier Bode Miller, only managed to finish fifth in Sunday’s men’s downhill, and American short track speed skater Apolo Ohno stumbled out of a chance at the gold in his first Olympic event. The 20-year-old from Seattle nearly fell with 1 1/2 laps to go in a semifinal heat of the 1,500 meters Sunday night, and wound up last across the line among those still skating.

His mistake dashed any hope of his defending his Olympic title in a much-anticipated showdown against South Korea’s 1-2 punch Ahn Hyun-soo and Lee Ho-suk.

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