Michelle Kwan Left The World Of Figure Skating With A Bigger Goal In Mind

Athletes | 3/24/20

In 1998, Michelle Kwan took the Winter Olympics by storm, winning a silver medal in the “Ladies Singles” event. At the time, she looked to be the next big sensation in the world of sports. Then, after injuries seemingly derailed her career, she took a step back from the spotlight. But were injuries the real reason she waved goodbye to her fans? This is the story of Michelle Kwan’s rise to glory, and the reason why she gave it up to lead a more private life!

She Started Skating At Age Five

michelle kwan young
Tony Duffy/Getty Images
Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Michelle Kwan was born in Torrance, California, in 1980. The youngest of three children, she began ice skating at just five years old. While she fell in love with the sport that would make her famous, it would still be several years before she began competing.

Her older siblings, Karen and Ron, were also interested in skating and helped fuel Michelle’s passion. Of course, no one in her family could have known just how big of an impact this shared interest would have in Michelle’s life.

Her Family Moved To The United States In 1971

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Ruediger Fessel/Bongarts/Getty Images
Ruediger Fessel/Bongarts/Getty Images

If it weren’t for Michelle Kwan’s parents moving from Hong Kong to the United States in 1971, who knows what her future would have held. Of course, her parents couldn’t have known at the time what their future child would do.

Speaking with CAPE, Kwan looked back at just how important her parents’ journey was to her own success. “You know, when I was 17 years old, my wish came true. And it was because of the sacrifices, the hard work, and all that went into the efforts of my parents, and also the hard work of trying to make it.”

Kwan Had Multiple Interests As A Child

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Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Along with figure skating, Michelle Kwan pursued many passions as a child, including tap dancing and piano playing. Because of her family’s finances, supporting so many passions became a burden on her parents.

As much as they may have wanted their daughter to go after everything, it just wasn’t possible. Kwan explained that when push came to shove, her parents asked, “What is it that you love the most?” When she was forced to choose, a young Michelle made the obvious choice.

Kwan Made Her Decision At Age Seven To Go Pro

michelle kwan with her coach
STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP via Getty Images
STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP via Getty Images

Michelle Kwan was watching the 1988 Winter Olympics when she decided she wanted to become a professional figure skater. She was seven years old at the time. In her interview with CAPE she expanded on the big life decision:

“I watched the Olympics when I was 7 years old…the ’88 Olympics. And I turn to my parents, ‘I know what I want to do. I want to be an Olympic Figure Skater.'”

Her Dream Was To Compete In The Olympics

michelle kwan close up
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Although she was young, Michelle Kwan was determined to make her passion her career. She even set her goal to become an Olympic figure skater, which would put her at the top of her profession.

When Kwan told her parents, she says, “they didn’t laugh, they didn’t do anything. But they’re like, if you want to go to the Olympics, it’s a lot of hard work.” The hard work would pay off ten years later when Kwan qualified for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Michelle Thought All She To Do Was Sign A Paper

michelle kwan holds and Alf doll
YOSHIKATSU TSUNO/AFP via Getty Images
YOSHIKATSU TSUNO/AFP via Getty Images

Before becoming a professional athlete, Kwan had to go through years of training. At her young age, she didn’t realize that going pro and going to the Olympics took more than signing her name on a piece of paper:

“I thought it was as easy as you signing a paper, an application, and ta-da you’re at the Olympic games.” Luckily, once she learned the truth, Kwan wasn’t dissuaded from pursuing her dream job.

Her Dreams Were Expensive

michelle kwan performing a routine
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As Michelle Kwan trained and climbed the ranks of the figure skating world, one thing became clear — there wasn’t a lot of money to be won. In order to keep her dreams alive, Kwan’s parents had to find ways to pay for new equipment, which didn’t always seem possible.

“When I was climbing the ranks in figure skating, there were many times when my parents looked at us saying, ‘Well we can’t afford new skates, and there might be a possibility that you have to quit skating,’” she said.

She Trained While Going To School

michelle kwan training
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Michelle Kwan may have been chasing her dreams, but she also had to go to school. This meant she had a grueling daily schedule that most people couldn’t cope with. Would you be able to wake up at four in the morning to train before classes, then train again after school ended?

This schedule helped keep Kwan disciplined and showed exactly how much passion she had for figure skating. The good news is that Kwan loved what she was doing, so it didn’t always feel like work.

Kwan Nearly Quit At 12 Years Old

michelle kwan getting upset
JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images
JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

Michelle Kwan reached a crucial point in her career at 12 years old. She was at the senior level of her sport and took second place at the 1994 Championships. Then she nearly made the life-changing decision to quit.

The stunning decision wasn’t one Kwan took lightly. She knew that her parents’ financial dire straights could end her career at any time, so why would she willingly quit? The reason was personal but also understandable.

Growing Up In The Public Eye Was Overwhelming

michelle kwan on television
Michael Williamson/The The Washington Post via Getty Images
Michael Williamson/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

The decision to nearly end her dream came at a time in Kwan’s life when she began going through puberty. Being in the public spotlight while growing up was almost too intense for the young star:

“You’re on [magazine] covers, being interviewed, and just trying to be the best — and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that.” Ultimately, Kwan pushed through the publicity, although years later she would finally make the decision leave the spotlight for good.

Dominating The Competition

michelle kwan skating for the championships
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Once Michelle Kwan began competing, it was clear that she was destined for greatness. In 1994 she won the World Junior Figure Skating Championship. The win skyrocketed her to fame within the sports world and was only a preview of things to come.

One year after taking the title, Kwan competed in the United States Championship, where she placed second. Three years later she would finally be able to live out her dream and compete in the Olympic Games.

Kwan’s Hard Work Paid Off In 1998

michelle kwan holding flowers
Aubrey Washington /Allsport
Aubrey Washington /Allsport

Starting at 12 years old, Michelle Kwan and her mother traveled the world so she could compete in figure skating competitions. In 1998, all of Kwan’s hard work and dedication paid off when she qualified for the Winter Olympics.

The games would be on the highlights of her career. She was finally living her dream, and after winning multiple competitions, knew she belonged. What she didn’t know was that there were still plenty of challenges laying ahead of her.

Her Success Turned Her Friends Against Her

michelle kwan with her back turned
Todd Warshaw /Allsport
Todd Warshaw /Allsport

Unfortunately, the further Kwan advanced in her career, the less friends she had. “I was doing really well in competitions and it felt strange because people that were my friends became almost jealous.”

Thankfully, Kwan’s mother never left her side. No matter how many friends bailed on the young star, her mom was always there for her. Having one pillar of support like that helped Kwan get through the toughest times of her career.

The Media Created Her Biggest Rivalry

kwan and lipinsku rivalry
David Madison/Getty Images
David Madison/Getty Images

Leading up to the 1998 Olympics, Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski became rivals. The only problem was that the rivalry was completely media made. Kwan never looked at Lipinski as a rival:

“…the media seemed to play up a rivalry that existed and did not exist,” she said. “I can tell you that my biggest competition was myself…There is only so much energy that one has. My focus was on how do I get the best out of myself.”

She Placed Second To Lipinski In 1998

michelle kwan learns her score at the olympics
Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images
Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

Part of the reason the media labeled Lipinski and Kwan as rivals was because they were both at the top of their field. Earlier in the figure skating season, Kwan asserted her dominance over Lipinski.

At the Olympics, however, Lipinksi overcame Kwan to win gold. The reasons for the turnaround came from the judges, who felt that Lipinski made fewer technical mistakes and also had a harder routine. This wouldn’t be the last time these two competitors faced off, even if it was one of the best!

Olympic Exposure Led To A Fashion Deal

michelle kwan posing
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Winning a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics proved fruitful for Kwan. Thanks to the international exposure, fashion icon Vera Wang struck a deal with the rising star. From that moment forward, Kwan would skate while wearing costumes worth thousands of dollars.

Looking her best would only further increase Kwan’s popularity as young people would begin to see her as both an athlete and fashion trendsetter. With so many things about her life changing, the figure next had to turn her focus to the 2002 Olympic Games.

Going For Olympic Gold

micelle kwan waiting to find out her score
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

As the 2002 Olympic Games approached, there was only one goal Michelle Kwan had in mind — to win a gold medal. In 1998 she had won two silver medals, but failed to take the top prize and was determined to leave Salt Lake City on top.

Now well into her 20s, the 2002 Olympics were likely going to be Kwan’s last. With how young she started training, it would be unlikely her body would hold up for four more years.

A Mistake Cost Her Gold In 2002

michelle kwan bronze medal
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

More confident than ever heading into her big routine at the 2002 Winter Olympics, Kwan was left in shock when a mistake during her routine nearly kept her off the podium. As soon as she slipped up, she knew gold was out of her grasp.

Still, Kwan’s routine, mistake included, was strong enough to net her a bronze medal. As heartbroken as she was, Kwan now set her sights on 2006 to win a gold.

Kwan’s Hip Was Injured Before 2006

michelle kwan holds a press conference
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

With the 2006 Winter Olympics now Kwan’s goal, she returned to training. Unfortunately, during this period of time, she suffered a hip injury that required surgery. This forced her to take a break from training and skating.

Unable to do what she loved, Kwan decided to focus on her education. She withdrew from Olympic qualifying in 2006 and applied to become a student at the University of Denver in Colorado.

Building A New Life In Private

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Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Women’s Sports Foundation
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Women’s Sports Foundation

Since leaving professional figure skating, Michelle Kwan has mostly kept her life private. She finished her education and began building a new life and career. Still, the impact she made while in the public eye, especially in the Asian American community, has continued to be an inspiration.

Because of that, the less people began to see of Michelle Kwan, the more they became curious about what happened to her. Was she finding happiness outside of figure skating?

She Still Active As A Mentor

michelle kwan gives an autograph
Noam Galai/WireImage
Noam Galai/WireImage

Speaking with Cosmopolitan, Kwan revealed that even though her life is more private now, she still stays involved with the lives of young female athletes. “Whether it’s competition, setbacks, fear of failing, or body image. I hope that [younger skaters] know I’m here for them to give honest advice.”

Speaking with Forbes she added, “My generation – the Foudy/Mendoza generation – is trying to make an impact on the next generation of young women athletes… who perhaps are transitioning out of sports and into leadership roles.”

Continuing To Be Inspired

nathan chen during a routine
Stanislav KrasilnikovTASS via Getty Images
Stanislav KrasilnikovTASS via Getty Images

At the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, American skaters Nathan Chen and Chloe Kim took the world by storm. To see another set of Asian Americans dominate that game inspired Kwan, who revealed in a video:

“It was so inspiring watching Nathan Chen, Chloe Kim… it will inspire the next generation of Asian-Americans wanting to be at the Olympic games. I think when you see pioneers and their sport, you see them, and you’re like ‘I didn’t think it was possible, until I saw this role model, kind of break the glass and pave the way.’”

She Served As An Ambassador To China

michelle kwan in china
Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

In 2006, Michel Kwan became a public diplomacy ambassador for the government. Her first trip sent her China. Over the next five years, the non-salaried position would send the former skater to Russia, Argentina, South Korea, Singapore, and Ukraine.

In 2012, Kwan was the State Department senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs. The job wouldn’t be the only big news Kwan would have to share with the world that year, though.

Kwan Became In Engaged In 2012

michelle kwan and clay pell
Jenny Anderson/WireImage
Jenny Anderson/WireImage

Kwan announced her engagement to Clay Pell in 2012. Pell worked in the government as well and was a member of the National Security staff. In January 2013, the couple officially exchanged vows. Kwan wore a dress designed by none other than Vera Wang.

Sadly, the two love birds’ relationship was not meant to last. In 2017, the couple filed for divorce. Kwan has not remarried since, and neither has Pell.

Staying Engaged In The Government

michelle kwan on the red carpet
Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images
Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images

While it might seem weird that a professional sports figure would be able to successfully transition their career to one with the government, that is exactly what Michelle Kwan has been able to do.

Over the last two election cycles, she has worked actively on campaigns for White House hopefuls. One strategist praised her new skillset, “She comes in with a lot of relationships… She knows celebrities. She’s known people at the State Department for a long time. She’s going to jell very well with the people over there.”