Ross Mathews: The Kwan and Only


By Out Contributor

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

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.

[Image: Getty]

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.