After many winters of discontent, the best of times for Kostner

Carolina Kostner in the gala after winning her fifth European title this year.  (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP/ Getty Images)

Carolina Kostner in the gala after winning her fifth European title this year. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP/ Getty Images / January 27, 2013)

LONDON, ONT. -- A decade ago, Carolina Kostner was the ingénue of the World Figure Skating Championships, a 16-year-old Italian who bounded around the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. like a frolicsome fawn as Michelle Kwan won her last of five world titles.

Sixth going into the free skate, Kostner finished 10th after having been a surprising fourth in her European Championships debut two months earlier.  That drop was not yet the problem such results would soon become.

It wasn’t long before the pure joy of skating that Kostner poured into her performances began to get muddied through the prism of others’ perceptions.  When her results did not match what the early success seemingly had foretold, Kostner began to face criticism that would intensify as her career bounded like an out-of-control roller coaster.

“Everybody was talking about this huge talent, huge talent, and then you kind of have big expectations on yourself,” Kostner, the reigning world champion, said Tuesday morning, after she worked out the jet lag of Monday’s trip from Europe with a practice that included no jumps.  “And my career grew and grew and grew, and I was just expecting more and more and more.  And then you fall.”

Kostner did not just fall.  She dropped off the face of a cliff at the 2006 Olympics and 2009 worlds and 2010 Olympics.  Her 15th-place free skate at 2009 worlds had one fall, no clean triple jumps and, most embarrassing, four single jumps.  Her 19th-place free skate at the 2010 Olympics had three falls and just one clean triple jump.

The worst, in some ways, was the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.  There she was, the reigning world bronze medalist, falling apart on home ice.

Kostner had begun to skate like a deer in headlights, a deer on the first day of hunting season.  She always was nervous in competition and often came completely unstrung after one mistake.

The press in Italy, a country that had paid little attention to figure skating for decades before she arrived, wrote her off for good after the Vancouver Games.

“It was really hard times,” she said.  “So I told myself, no results any more, just skating.  And that’s what I started skating for, right?  Not to be known or anything.”

It turned out the best times and results were ahead.

Last season, Kostner added the world title to a record that now includes three other world medals, plus eight straight European medals, with five titles.  It also includes finishes of ninth and 16th at the Olympics and 12ths in the 2006 and 2009 worlds.

“I think everybody has ups and downs in their lives,” she said.  “We learn from the biggest disappointments, right?  You learn how to be humble to yourself and to be humble to others.  You learn to respect and learn the value of a medal much more.”

Two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner was an 11-year-old flower girl at Kostner’s 2003 world meet debut.  Wagner, who also made her world debut at 16 and struggled the next three seasons, is struck by Kostner’s resilience.

“Her lows are definitely low,” Wagner said Tuesday, after skipping a morning practice because her skates were in luggage that finally arrived as her evening practice began. “We have all seen her have some really rough skates. It is impressive she doesn’t let that become entirely the skater she is. To come back so strong and put it together mentally and physically is impressive.”

This has been a curious season for Kostner.  Her boyfriend of five years, 2008 Olympic race walk champion Andrea Schwazer of Italy, was thrown out of the 2012 Summer Games before his event because of a positive test for EPO.  Schwazer had kept the banned blood-boosting drug in Kostner’s refrigerator, hidden in a package of vitamin B-12, and he insisted after being busted that she had no knowledge of his doping.

Kostner has stood by her man.  She also stuck to a decision made two months before his doping scandal to skip the fall Grand Prix season.  Then she did two minor winter competitions, plus Italian nationals and Europeans, as preparation for worlds, in which the women’s event begins Thursday.

“When it came to October, November, I had this moment when I said, `Uh-oh, did I make the wrong decision?”’ Kostner said.  “But it came to a point where I just needed some time for myself, for being a young woman and having time for my friends.

“It turned out it was the right decision.  If it’s going to be positive or negative on my worlds. . .I don’t think that is going to be the reason if I skate good or bad.”

It would not have been surprising if Kostner, 26, had decided to stop for good after winning the world title on her 10th try.  She thought about it, then decided this was the time to enjoy what took so long to achieve, no matter the result on the scoreboard.

“When an artist becomes a master, it’s his best time,” Kostner said.  “I love to do it.  I’m not ready to give that up yet.”

CHICAGO

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