“When I was 7, I saw the 1988 Olympics on TV. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to truly great figure skating. Seeing the performances of people who were at the very top of the skating world. … Somehow, in the middle of all that fun, skating had touched my heart. Amazingly enough, I’ve made it to the top with my idols.” Michelle Kwan wrote this inspirational account in her book, “The Winning Attitude: What It Takes to Be a Champion.”
Danny and Estella Kwan immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong and had three kids, per CNN. Their eldest, Ron, is often credited for getting his little sisters to the rink because he played ice hockey. Michelle Kwan, who was born in 1980 in Torrance, California, was only five when she started skating with her older sister, Karen. Michelle “loved charging across the ice and spinning around” at the rink, and her understanding of skating developed over time. As Michelle Kwan watched Brian Boitano skate in the 1988 Olympics, “it was like a thunderbolt struck. Something sparked inside me. And when I saw him standing on the podium, that spark burst into flame,” she wrote in her biography.
Ten years later, the figure skater officially became an Olympian. Michelle Kwan reached astounding heights before and after 1998 — she is a nine-time US Champion, a five-time World Champion, and a four-time Grand Prix Final silver medalist, among many other accolades. This Olympic medalist can inspire us all.
There was no doubt that Michelle Kwan loved to skate
Michelle Kwan first won a skating competition at seven years of age. Per ESPN, she began working with coach Frank Carroll in 1992 and competed at the junior level. When she was 12, she competed in the 1993 US Figure Skating Championships at the senior level (unbeknownst to her coach) in Phoenix, Arizona, placing sixth overall. Kwan was the youngest to compete in that division “since Priscilla Hill in 1973,” and she also became the youngest to earn a figure skating gold medal at the Olympic Festival, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Kwan clearly loved skating and knows that it was a sacrifice for her parents. She wrote in part on Instagram, “When I reflect back on this time it makes me choke up a little — my parents struggling to make ends meet and sacrificing everything to make their little girls dream come true. I made it to nationals without a coach in both the regional and sectional competitions. There was no way my family could afford the lessons, let alone pay for a coach to travel with me to events.” Kwan also shared that she wore a hand-me-down costume and used pair of skates.
Per the Orlando Sentinel, Danny and Estella Kwan were constantly commuting to keep up with their two daughters’ training in Lake Arrowhead, California. Estella worked at the family’s Chinese restaurant in Torrance all week, and Danny worked at Pacific Bell as a systems analyst in Los Angeles.
Michelle Kwan got through her teen years with her sister close by
Karen and Michelle Kwan trained “at the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead” on scholarship (per the Orlando Sentinel). Their parents had Michelle study with private tutors rather than continue her public school education. In 1994, 13-year-old Michelle Kwan placed second at Nationals in Detroit (again breaking a record at her age) and eighth at the World Championships.
Following the tragic attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan could have taken Tonya Harding’s place on the US Olympic team if Harding hadn’t been permitted to compete. Kwan was ultimately an alternate at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. When W magazine caught up with the figure skater decades later and asked if she would watch “I, Tonya,” Kwan answered, “I’m sure I’ll watch it, but I kind of lived it, so… I was very close to it.” Even at a young age, Michelle Kwan skated past the drama.
When Karen Kwan competed against Michelle in the 1995 women’s singles, it marked the first time for sisters to compete in that event “since Carol and Nancy Heiss in 1959,” The Washington Post reported. As the Kwans trained together at Lake Arrowhead’s Ice Castle, Coach Frank Carroll said, “They do not skate anything alike.” Karen Kwan was very logical about going up against her sister. She told The Washington Post, “I don’t feel like I’m her competitor. I’m skating for myself and she is skating for herself.”
Skating all the way to Nagano
Michelle Kwan prepared diligently for the next Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. She won the US and World Figure Skating Championships in 1996 at 15 years old. In 1997, Karen Kwan left competitive figure skating to focus on her Boston University studies, the Chicago Tribune reported. Karen stayed at school as Michelle readied herself for the 1998 Olympic Games. Michelle had “sustained a stress fracture in the second toe of her left foot” (via The New York Times) in 1997 and withdrew from a Munich, Germany international competition after exacerbating the injury at Skate Canada.
Michelle Kwan was a brilliant champion at the 1998 Nationals in Philadelphia. “I could tell when she stepped on the ice that this was going to be something special,” choreographer Lori Nichol told Sports Illustrated.
At the Olympics, Michelle Kwan kept her focus and knew exactly why she was in Nagano. The Chicago Tribune pitted her against Tara Lipinski, a “frolicsome 15-year-old” “hanging around the Olympic Village and bantering with the media at every occasion” as Michelle Kwan stayed at a downtown hotel. Kwan said on CNN’s “People in the News,” “I remember when I was in Japan, and the first time I stepped foot into the Olympic arena, I skated over the sign that said ‘Nagano, 1998 Olympics,’ and I had tears in my eyes just being at the Olympic building, being an Olympian.” Michelle Kwan took home the Olympic silver medal in ’98 and kept striving for the gold.
A busy young adulthood for Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan didn’t rest on her laurels after the Olympics — she continued her incredible streak as the US Champion and earned the World title several more times. Michelle Kwan had become a real celebrity. She skated in the “Champions on Ice” tour and turned to television, signing a deal with Disney and appearing on series and specials. She energized audiences at home in “Michelle Kwan Skates to Disney’s Greatest Hits” and portrayed herself on Disney Channel’s “The Jersey.” Apart from the Mouse, Kwan voiced animated versions of herself on “Arthur” and “Family Guy.” These are just a few of the credits she garnered in between the 1998 and 2002 Olympics.
Kwan was an American favorite, selected for People’s 50 Most Beautiful People 2000. She was a spokesperson for Children’s Miracle Network, the cover girl of many magazines, and even the star of a computer game. Michelle Kwan managed to stay on top of her game and still attend movie premieres and appear on television with a smile on her face. “It seems like in the last few years, I’ve experienced a lot and have grown up,” Kwan said on CNN’s “People in the News.” Her next moves in life certainly made a statement of independence.
Michelle Kwan called the shots for her next Winter Olympics
Michelle Kwan made the news for firing her coach (as well as her choreographer) ahead of the 2002 Olympics. Kwan said, (via AP), “It must be earth-breaking news, but for me, at this moment, I think it’s the right decision.” She knew the Olympics were approaching, and she and Frank Carroll had “philosophical differences.”
In a 2002 Olympics segment, she said, “I’ve learned a lot since ’98. If I had to do it all over, if I had the chance to, I would. I did a clean short, clean long, I just missed that spark. I didn’t break out of the shell. I didn’t go crazy … you come so close, and when you stand at the podium, it’s like, ‘God, there’s one step higher than me.'” Michelle Kwan specifically said of her coach, “I still love Frank, and I think we were both hurt ’cause we were ending a great ten years. But I wanted to take responsibility of my skating and try to make decisions on my own.” Family support continued to bolster the 21-year-old skater, who called her dad her “cheerleader” in the 2002 Olympics segment and wore her good luck charm from her grandmother as she skated.
Michelle Kwan was the bronze medalist at the Salt Lake City Olympics. “It’s a bummer, but it is competition,” Kwan told the AP (via ESPN). “I just had to remind myself, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay,”‘ she added.
Michelle Kwan planned on a third Olympic rally
Michelle Kwan juggled her love for skating with her desire for more. “I want to have a social life and go out all the time, but I want to be able to wake up in the morning and train. It’s very confusing,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “What am I fighting for? I’ve gone to Olympics twice. Ten world championships. I’m like,`What, what’s wrong with you? Just go out and enjoy life.’ But this is what I enjoy … It’s just silly skating.” Not silly enough to keep Kwan and her father from investing in a rink.
Michelle Kwan was good as gold in the commercial realm while she trained for the 2006 Olympics with her new coach, Rafael Arutunian. “For Ms. Kwan’s employers, her sterling reputation makes her a solid investment during a time when many endorsement deals include ‘behavioral clauses,'” The New York Times reported. Advertisements and other appearances abounded — like a “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” episode and a cameo in the Disney film “Ice Princess.”
In an upsetting turn of events, Kwan couldn’t compete in the 2005-06 Grand Prix due to a hip issue. A groin injury followed, and Kwan didn’t compete for the gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics. “I respect the Olympics too much to compete and I don’t feel I can be at my best,” she said when she withdrew from the Turin Games (via CBS News).
Life after the Olympics
Michelle Kwan told US Figure Skating in 2021, “After those 2006 Olympics, if I had been 22, then maybe I would have tried to make it to 2010. But I was 26 and I had other interests, like going back to school and pursuing a master’s degree in foreign policy. I had many chapters of my life ahead of me and it felt like it was time to turn the page.” That’s precisely what she did. Michelle Kwan had already taken classes at UCLA when she enrolled at the University of Denver in 2006.
It wasn’t long before Kwan gained real-world experience in her field. In 2006, “Condoleezza Rice appointed Kwan as the first U.S. Public Diplomacy Envoy, which sent her across the world to engage in a cross-cultural dialogue with international youth” (per US Figure Skating). “As an athlete, I’ve always been very proud to represent the United States,” Kwan stated (via CBS News). By virtue of representing her country, Michelle Kwan continued utilizing her Olympic sensibility.
Michelle Kwan “discovered that diplomacy — finding common ground, helping people and countries come together — was a real interest for [her].” She added, “And it makes sense, because where does the world come together every two years? Where do 200 countries come together at one time? The Olympics! In many ways, my Olympic and athletic background prepared me in my role as a diplomat.” What a perfect role for a beloved icon.
Michelle Kwan continued her paths of academia and diplomacy
Michelle Kwan told the Chicago Tribune that she’d “been working with a trainer for two months” on her skating. “I want to get in good shape and see how far that takes me, because I don’t know. But I have made no decisions whatsoever,” she said ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Other endeavors won out. In 2009, Michelle Kwan graduated from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies with a bachelor’s degree in international studies as well as a political science minor. Kwan continued her academic path with a master’s program at the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and International Diplomacy.
Former President Barack Obama appointed Michelle Kwan to his Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in 2010. The same year, Michelle Kwan began working on the Special Olympics International Board of Directors. The Special Olympics calls Michelle Kwan “a lifelong supporter” of the organization, citing her advocacy and her regular attendance at events.
Kwan had reached the age of 30 with incredible achievements on and off the ice. Following her graduation from Tufts in 2011, Michelle Kwan advanced in her diplomacy career with a post at the Department of State as “a senior advisor for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs” (via US Figure Skating). She also worked with Hillary Clinton as an advisor on the U.S.-China Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue and joined Clinton’s presidential campaign for the first time.
Michelle Kwan went through more changes in her 30s
In 2012, Kwan was the only skater inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. “It seems like I have come full circle. From my first nationals to now being elected to the Hall of Fame, it has been amazing,” Kwan said (via AP). Michelle Kwan was so deserving of the huge honor.
Along with the continuous positive developments in her life came a new relationship. Herbert Claiborne “Clay” Pell IV proposed to Michelle Kwan in September 2012 on Block Island (via People). Kwan married the former US Coast Guard Lieutenant in 2013. Like Kwan, Pell was committed to politics. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education, strategic planning director on the White House National Security staff, and a 2014 Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate.
Michelle Kwan became busy in Brooklyn, New York with her work on the next Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Kwan was a surrogate, traveling to muster up celebrity support for her candidate. “It’s emotional, this journey,” Kwan told Intelligencer. She added, “There’s so much to do, and it’s overwhelming at times. But you just keep at it and you push through. It’s exciting, too!”
Getting back on the ice…and the campaign trail
Clay Pell and Michelle Kwan’s marriage ended bitterly. Per Providence Journal, Kwan learned of the divorce on Twitter! The couple parted due to irreconcilable differences, and while Kwan was reticent about the split, Yahoo! News examined her positive Instagram at the time. An April 2017 post read, “Hanging in there,” as Kwan did aerial yoga.
One loose end to tie up from her previous marriage was the Palladian-style Newport, Rhode Island mansion she won in the divorce. Kwan sold the historic property for $4 million in 2018, Realtor.com reported. With many changes swirling around her, it’s no wonder that Michelle Kwan returned to one of her greatest loves: figure skating. She shared her return to the ice with W magazine. While Michelle Kwan was an ambassador for a Proctor & Gamble campaign coinciding with the 2018 Olympics, she skated “out of admiration for the next generation of athletes.” Kwan felt the challenge of her old moves and told W, “You know, I should do it before I’m 40.”
Kwan embarked on another adventure before turning 40 in 2020. She worked on the Biden presidential campaign as surrogate director beginning in 2019. After President Biden announced his candidacy, Michelle Kwan shared her excitement in an Instagram post ending with, “He’s the candidate that I’m proud to support because he will do what it takes to restore the soul of this nation, rebuild the backbone of the country, and unify America.”
President Biden knows how cool Michelle Kwan is
As COVID-19 developed in 2020, Michelle Kwan moved back to California and worked hard from home: “Working on a presidential campaign you keep a very crazy and hectic schedule,” Kwan told US Figure Skating. She continued, “I started each day at 6 a.m. [Pacific Time] on a call with our department and my emails wouldn’t stop until about 11 p.m. — and that’s 2 a.m. on the East Coast where most of my colleagues lived.” After President Biden won the election, Michelle Kwan continued working with his administration. The star skater was a Presidential Inauguration Committee senior talent advisor.
Michelle Kwan continues to fight for equality and works on several projects involving the AAPI community. Kwan participated in the #AAPI Women Strong and See Us Unite for Change. She also co-executive produced a 2021 YouTube show called “Recipe for Change” and wrote on Twitter, “I’m joined by powerful voices as we gather around the dinner table to celebrate API culture and ignite change.” She has often shared some of her recipes on Instagram. Kwan opened up to People about “hurtful” experiences the API community goes through. She stressed the importance of discussion, saying, “How do we address these issues? How do we talk about it? First, it’s through food, because food is always a great way to bring people together.”
You’ll find Michelle Kwan rollerblading, hanging out in the sun with her dog, and using her voice for good in this world.
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