Ross Mathews: The Kwan and Only
On the eve of the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics, we turned to our favorite intern-turn-entertainment-mogul, Ross Mathews, to remind us what the competition means to fans. In an exclusive excerpt from Man Up!, Mathews shares the heartbreaking-yet-hilarious tale of watching one of his figure skating idols take center ice at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. From Nancy Kerrigan's knee-capping to Kwan's bronze medal, skating doesn't get any gayer (or funnier) than this personal account of the Games' most iconic sport.
As proud as I am of the person I’ve become, I also must acknowledge that I’m a complete and total failure. Sure, I’ve managed to cross off a few amazing items from my bucket list, but there is one item that, barring a small miracle or a major change in the rules for the Winter Olympic Games, shall forever remain on that list, glaring at me in all its annoyingly unfulfilled glory.
I’m like those Nerds candies that were my absolute favorite when I was a kid. The best flavor of Nerds were the ones that were Green Apple on the outside, but slowly dissolved in your mouth to reveal a hidden coating of Sour Red Cherry flavor on the inside. Sure, my personal outer coating may appear to be that of a well-rounded ball of happy-go-plucky positivity, but if you took the time to really delve deep into my psyche, you’d discover that inside me lives a tortured and embittered should-have-been Gold Medal–winning figure skater.
Wow! Total shocker, right? The gay guy loves figure skating! Whodathunk? Pick your jaw up from the floor and deal with it.
Figure skating! There is absolutely nothing more graceful than someone seemingly floating across the ice, alternating between flying through the air and spinning over and over and over again without vomiting on themselves. It’s the perfect balance of athleticism and artistry.
I used to daydream about skating like that. And, oh, how my daydreams felt so real. I could almost feel it—the wind whipping my impossibly shiny hair as I spun through the air, the crowd leaping to their feet as I safely landed on mine. My purple-cotton-poly-blend pantsuit with matching chiffon cape, although flatteringly formfitting, would allow me full range of motion to express my innermost emotions on the ice. And, oh, how I would! The dazzled crowd would be on the edges of their seats and on the verge of tears as I dramatically ripped off my cape at the climactic crescendo of my signature performance music—the Dawson’s Creek theme song, of course.
Yes, I always felt certain that I had that virtuoso skating ability living within me, just waiting to pop out like confetti or that scary baby monster thing in Alien. So when I finally did try figure skating for the first time, I was convinced that I would step onto the ice and instinctively glide effortlessly around the rink. I mean, sure it would take a few minutes before my first triple toe loop—that was understandable—but I knew without a doubt I’d finish my first lesson with a perfectly executed death spiral.
Well, it didn’t exactly turn out like that. I never achieved a perfect death spiral during that first lesson, but I did very nearly spiral to my death. Instead of exploding onto the figure skating scene like some sort of red hot ingénue, I remained frozen in my skates, my legs wobbling like Bambi in that scene when he first learned to walk. It became suddenly clear that ice skating involved much more than just smiles, Spandex, and sequins. It also took sweat, strength, and surprisingly sturdy ankles. Sadly, I had none of the above. I spent most of my first lesson facedown on the ice and faced with some cold, hard facts.
Although black and blue after my one and only attempt at figure skating, what hurt the most was the knowledge that as much as my mind could envision it, my body just wouldn’t allow my inner gift to flourish. I felt like a marionette with severed strings, or one of those delusional people on American Idol who think they can sing but obviously can’t. As frustrated as I was then, however, my love for the sport has never wavered and I have come to terms with—and even learned to love—my role as a mere spectator.
I don’t want to brag or anything, but I was into figure skating way before it was cool. You know, before the entire world became interested in the sport during the gory glory days of the Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan tragedy. What a wonderful game changer that was! Sure, Nancy’s knee and Tonya’s freedom were both sacrificed, but it was a magical time that finally brought figure skating into the mainstream. The whole thing was like a soap opera on skates. The crime! The video footage! The “will they or won’t they compete on the ice” cliffhangers! And, the best of all, the so-bad-they’re-good made-for-TV movies that followed! For a gay kid with a love of both figure skating and drama, it was almost too much.
In case you’re an idiot who didn’t follow every second of the excitement back then, or you’re too young and haven’t done your homework (kids these days...), let me fill you in on what went down: In order to secure Tonya Harding a spot on the US Olympic team, her husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired a big, scary guy to whack Tonya’s biggest competition, Nancy Kerrigan, on the knee with a lead pipe (“WHY ME?!?!?”). I know it sounds like a game of Clue, but it really happened.
What followed was a media shit storm the likes of which had never been seen before. This was pre–O.J. Simpson, pre–Michael Jackson molestation trial, pre–cat playing the piano on YouTube. It was huge. It was all anybody was talking about. It was nasty and tasteless. And, in my teenaged opinion, it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened. I was glued to the coverage 24/7. All of this brouhaha built up to the day Nancy and Tonya finally skated at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, making an already thrilling event downright electrifying.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Even though it was happening like nine time zones away, I was a nervous wreck. I remember frantically watching the clock in my seventh-grade Language Arts class and biting my nails, knowing that it was all happening right at that very moment.
Lacking both logic and even one single ounce of human decency, my teacher wouldn’t allow us to skip that day’s chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, even though I’d politely pointed out about 14 times how easy it would be for us to just roll in the TV and watch, oh, I don’t know, actual history in the making?!? I mean, I’m sorry, but classic literature will always be here. Harding vs. Kerrigan only happened that day. Get your priorities straight, lady.
It may shock you to learn that I was solidly in Tonya’s corner. Yes, she was obviously guilty of orchestrating a violent attack on her biggest competitor and—almost as bad—had the most horrendous hair I’d ever seen, but I preferred her for two reasons. One, I like a little “trashy” in my women. Honey, a few bad highlights, permed bangs, and French-tipped acrylic nails never hurt anyone.
And two, Nancy had done something I could never forgive. Here’s a little figure skating history lesson, dear reader: It was the 1994 US National Figure Skating Championships—six months prior to the Olympics—and Tonya Harding took first place. Nancy Kerrigan couldn’t compete that night because she was still healing from her unfortunate knee injury. Sure, they were the most-talked about women in the world at that time, but for me, they were overshadowed that night. I remember watching it in my parents’ living room, a bowl of Triscuits with a side of onion dip next to me, when I saw her. She may have been only 13 years old and weighed about as much as the onion dip I’d devoured that night, but she took my breath away. Her name was Michelle Kwan, and she was undeniably the best figure skater I had ever seen. She soared with a weightless and effortless fluidity, like a sweet, romantic, otherworldly poem on the ice. I instantly became a faithful Kwanatonian and from that moment on have been loyal to my Kwan and Only.
Michelle Kwan’s performance was perfect. The kind of perfect you usually only experience listening to Justin Timberlake’s first solo album or ordering the all-you-can-eat soup-and-salad special at Olive Garden. But even though she took second place that night at the U.S. Championships, the Olympic Committee decided to instead take pity on Nancy Kerrigan and send her to the Olympics, cruelly discarding my beloved Michelle. So, even though Michelle had rightfully earned a spot in the 1994 games, she never even got her chance to compete! In the words of Full House’s Stephanie Tanner, “How rude!”
And that—that right there—is why I chose to root for Tonya, a knee-bashing hillbilly nincompoop, over Classy Nancy. Sure, it wasn’t Nancy’s fault that my precious Michelle was thrown under the Zamboni, but I had to take it out on someone.
Anyway, my love for both Nancy and Tonya was on thin ice after I fell under the spell of the Kwan. Going forward, there was nothing that would get in my way of watching Michelle skate. I didn’t care if there were floods, famine, or a 50-percent-off sale—if she was on the ice skating, I was on the couch watching. That was why I freaked out so hard-core when, in my very early days as a correspondent on The Tonight Show, I got the assignment of a lifetime: covering the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Holy shitballs, you guys. Do you know what this meant? I was going to be in the same city as the Kwan at the exact moment that she would, undoubtedly, win her first Olympic gold medal.
OMG. I had to meet her. Or, at the very least, if I couldn’t meet her, I had to use the time I had on-air on NBC to make sure that Michelle Kwan knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was her biggest fan on the face of the planet.
And that’s exactly what I did. Throughout the entire Winter Olympic Games, with every segment I shot and every live toss back to Jay Leno in the studio in Burbank, I would try to include an on-air message to my Michelle. Mind you, it was nothing super creepy. Just something subtle like, “Oh, one more thing, Jay. I just want to say a big hello to the best figure skater in the entire world, Michelle Kwan. We’re in the same city, honey—let’s hang out!”
I kept waiting for the bigwigs at NBC to tell me to cut it out, but they never did. I think they thought my pathetic pseudo-stalker pleas were funny. I think they hoped, too, that perhaps Michelle would actually reach out in return and we could shoot an amazing segment where she and I actually met for the first time on air. Now that would be good television!
The highlight of my experience during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was also the low point. One of my Tonight Show producers surprised me on the day of the women’s figure skating long program competition with tickets to the big event. This was huge! Bigger than huge! This was the event where my Michelle would surely win her long-deserved gold medal, finally taking her rightful place among the ranks of the world’s best skaters. A monumental moment for her, certainly, but even bigger for me. It felt like Christmas plus birthday plus the last day of school multiplied by a bazillion.
On the day of the competition, I couldn’t even eat—that was how nervous I was to see her perform. I walked into the auditorium and immediately felt the energy. This was the Olympics. This mattered. The eyes of the world were focused on what was about to happen, and I was there to witness it all firsthand. As I took my seat and waited impatiently for the competition to start, the enormity and magnitude of the event hit me. How lucky was I? I knew for certain I’d tell my grandkids about this moment one day. Can’t you just picture it? I’d be in my rocking chair, wrapped in a cashmere shawl while sipping Ensure out of a wineglass. “Chillun, come gather ’round Pop Pop,” I’d mumble through my dentures and a Werther’s Original butterscotch candy. “I’m gonna tell you young-uns ’bout the legend of the Kwan and how I was there to see her golden moment...”
As the event began and the other skaters took their turns, I wasn’t worried. Call me biased, but this was no contest for the Kwan. I almost took a bathroom break when the USA’s Sarah Hughes took the ice. I mean, she was good and all, but she wasn’t even expected to medal. Even so, I decided to stay and support the home team.
That fucking Sarah Hughes. She was magical. She came out of nowhere and gave me chills, landing triple after triple after triple like some sort of beautiful figure skating phenom. As much as I hated to admit it, it was clear that this was a Kwan-caliber performance. The crowd was abuzz with shock and joy, counting the seconds down to the end of her program so they could erupt in applause and shower the ice rink below with roses and teddy bears. That fucking Sarah Hughes.
As magnificent as Sarah was, I wasn’t panicking. Michelle had this. All she had to do was not fall. That’s it—just give the ol’ Kwan razzle-dazzle, land her jumps, and she’d skate easily to the top of the medal podium.
To the roar of the crowd, Ms. Kwan stepped onto the rink looking even more radiant than usual. Her stunning crimson costume with gold detail was perfectly accented with her signature necklace, a Chinese good-luck charm her grandmother Yung Chun gave to her when she was just a 10-year-old girl (she never takes it off—look it up). The cheering audience went silent as Michelle took her place at the center of the ice.
As a selection from Scheherazade, the Russian symphonic suite by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, began to echo throughout the arena, Michelle began her program, gliding toward her first series of jumps. I held my breath as she launched herself into the air. Boom! She landed it! Thank God. I exhaled and wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. I felt like one of those fantastically annoying stage moms who coach their daughter’s choreography from the audience at beauty pageants (God, I can’t wait to have a daughter).
Then it was time for more jumps. Boom! Landed them again! That’s my girl! As she rounded the far end of the rink and entered the last minutes of her performance, a wave of excitement replaced my nervousness as I realized she was actually going to do this. Just two more jumps and the gold was hers!
Boom. That was when it happened.
To be honest, dear reader, if it was up to me, I’d just end the chapter right here. It’s just too painful for me to continue. I mean, I had to actually live through the experience once, and now you want me to relive it through the written word? How dare you? That’s asking a lot of a man. But ever a champion, Michelle would want me to rise above my own great pain to tell the tale of her Great Fall. And so I shall.
Yeah, she fell. And it wasn’t pretty. I suggest you look this performance up on YouTube, which I occasionally do when I’m in the mood to pair a nice Chardonnay with a freshly reopened wound. As you watch that fateful moment, listen closely and—I swear to Kwan—you can hear my horrified shriek piercing the otherwise muted gasps of the stunned crowd.
Michelle, of course, handled the fall gracefully and finished her routine like a consummate professional. I, on the other hand, completely lost my shit. The ramifications of this fall were huge. Insult to injury, the following and final skater (the aptly named Irina SLUTskaya) executed a nearly flawless performance, simultaneously securing Sarah Hughes’s gold medal win, and knocking poor Michelle down to third. Bronze? Bronze? Do you know how hard it is to coordinate an outfit with bronze? This was shocking. This was soulcrushing. This was hands-down the worst thing that had happened to me since Shannen Doherty left Beverly Hills 90210.
For the remainder of the Olympics, I was completely inconsolable. My crew tried in vain to cheer me up. The last night of the games was the worst. Not only had I not met Michelle, but her dreams of Olympic gold had been crushed.
To mark the end of the Olympics, the Tonight Show crew had a celebratory dinner at the fanciest restaurant in all of Salt Lake City. I half-heartedly mustered up the will to put together an outfit for the occasion: black from head to toe—I was, after all, in mourning. Not even a gallon of Diet Coke and an entire basket of bread could pull me out of my funk. My chicken parmesan tasted a little saltier than I would’ve liked, undoubtedly because it was seasoned with my tears.
Toward the end of the meal, our waiter approached the table, no doubt to tell us about the dessert selection. Thank God. I couldn’t wait to emotionally munch the bejeezus out of a piece of carrot cake. Instead, however, he leaned down to me and whispered, “Mr. Mathews, there’s someone in the back who would love to meet you.”
Oh, that’s nice, I thought. I guess one of those cute busboys recognizes me from TV.
I followed the waiter through the kitchen, down a maze of long hallways, and through the double doors of what appeared to be an enormous private party in a fancy, exclusive dining room.
Before I could process what was happening, all eyes turned to me, and the large crowd rose from their tables and burst into thunderous applause. In a total stupor, I looked around the room and began clapping along with everyone else, having no clue what was going on. Little by little, it dawned on me that I was the reason everyone was clapping.
The moment that realization sank in, the crowd parted and I saw her. As if in slow motion, she walked toward me, her ponytail swaying from side to side. She was carrying a single rose. It was Michelle Kwan.
“I hear you’ve been looking for me,” she said with a humongous smile. She handed me the rose. “This is for you, Ross.”
Holy fucking shit. Was this actually happening? Was I dreaming?
I took the rose. “Hi, I’m Ross.”
Laughing, she replied, “I know, I heard you were here and I had to say hi. Thank you so much for all your support.”
Then she hugged me, and as quickly as that magical moment began, it was over. I was whisked back to my table, back to the real world, and the next day back home to Los Angeles, clutching my rose the entire flight.
Who needs a stinkin’ gold medal, anyway? Sure, my Michelle never won the Olympics. Big whoop. To me, she’ll always be number one. I wouldn’t give up the memory of that night—or the rose—for all the gold medals in the world.
Most importantly, Michelle taught me a valuable lesson: Winning isn’t everything. That is, of course, unless you’re my future daughter and you’re competing in a beauty pageant. Honey, don’t embarrass Daddy. Second Place is First Loser. I’ll settle for nothing less than Grand Supreme, and I’m not talking about a Taco Bell burrito.
Excerpted from the book MAN UP!: Tales of My Delusional Self-Confidence by Ross Mathews. Copyright © 2013 by Ross Mathews. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.