Ross Mathews: The Kwan and Only

2.6.2014

By Out Contributor

The talk show host recounts the time he watched (and later met) his figure skating idol at the 2002 Winter Olympics

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. 

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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.

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