A Champion in All Levels
Michelle’s incredible performances have earned her numerous awards and recognitions all throughout her professional years, so much so that she is a two-time Olympic Games medallist, a five-time World Champion, and a nine-time United States Champion. She is also a recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award, which is given to amateur athletes who excel in their field. Since she established herself in the figure skating world, Michelle has not only become the most popular figure skater in the United States, but she has also been one of the most famous female athletes, constantly making it to the top ten polls and lists in various publications.
Graceful, agile and extraordinary are just some of the words that can be used to describe Michelle whenever she performs on the ice. One can easily see the amount of passion that she puts in her performances, as Michelle is always at her best no matter where or what she will perform for. Most, if not all who witness Michelle figure skate are often awed by her graceful movements that prove her a champion.
Winning against Trials
One of the things that helped Michelle achieve so much in her life is her attitude towards disappointments. Often, when people face disappointing incidents, they regret the fact that they could have done it better, and that regret prevents them from improving and moving forward—but not Michelle. She does not allow herself to regret any negative circumstances that come against her, because she knows that these disappointments are not stumbling blocks, but stepping stones so she can go higher.
Michelle points this out in an interview when she was asked about whether she had any regrets in her career:
“Disappointments, of course, but not regrets. That was one thing my parents taught me from the get-go: they didn’t want me to look back and say, 'I could have worked harder, I could have tried harder, I could have trained better.' Those were things I knew I never wanted to regret.”
Michelle is never afraid to dream big, and she does not allow her fears to get in the way of following her passions to achieve her dreams. This is what makes her amazing as a person. In her career, she has always had ups and downs, but she never allowed herself to be taken out by her disappointments or failures. Michelle saw the goal, and focused on it in spite of the numerous obstacles along the way.
A Philanthropist by Heart
But aside from her being known as an international figure skating superstar, Michelle is also a passionate and active philanthropist and diplomat, having used her figure skating background to be able to strengthen ties between the United States and other countries through the use of figure skating programs and the promotion of the sport.
Not only that, but Michelle has also been an avid supporter of the Special Olympics, and has spent a lot of her time and effort to reach out and inspire its competitors that they are just as much as those without disabilities. As Timothy Shriver, the CEO of Special Olympics International, says about Michelle:
“Michelle has been an extraordinary supporter of Special Olympics around the globe. She’s conducted skating clinics with our Special Olympics athletes, appeared at special events and helps build acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities in every community she touches.”
Michelle Wingshan Kwan was born in 1980 in the city of Torrance, California, to parents Danny and Estella Kwan. Michelle’s Han Chinese heritage comes from both of her parents, who were immigrants from Hong Kong who went to the United States to seek out a better life. Michelle is the youngest of three children, her older siblings being Ron and Karen.
In spite of growing up primarily in a Western culture, Michelle never forgot about her own heritage. Both Danny and Estella taught their daughter the Chinese culture, and often spoke a mixture of Cantonese and English at home. Because of this, Michelle grew up in both worlds, and learned to appreciate both the Eastern and Western cultures.
Danny and Estella were greatly significant in the development of Michelle’s interest in figure skating, as well as her desire to become a champion and face all odds to achieve it. Aside from giving their children all the love and support that they can, Danny and Estella often inspired and encouraged their children to take up a sport that they loved to do. Michelle said of her parents many years later:
“I’ll never forget and always be thankful for the sacrifices that my parents made for my skating. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support. My parents always encouraged my sister, brother and I to take up a sport.”
Michelle studied at the Soleado Elementary School for most of her primary and middle school years, where her outgoing and friendly personality earned her a lot of friends. To her fellow schoolmates, Michelle was quite popular due to her athletic physique and her interest in figure skating. She was also a bright and intelligent student, which constantly earned her the praise of her teachers. Michelle stopped going to school in 1994, opting instead to be home-schooled so she could focus more on her figure skating passion.
Introduction to Figure Skating
Michelle’s interest in ice skating began when she was five years old, when she saw her older siblings do sports on the ice—Ron was a hockey player while Karen was a figure skater. Even in her first try, Michelle showed great aptitude for figure skating, winning her first competition just a year later.
Although she and her sister initially skated just for fun, Michelle began to take a more serious approach on the sport when she was around eight years old, which was when she started to spend more time in skating, training for up to four hours every day. The sisters’ newfound endeavour proved to take a toll on the economic stability of their family, as Danny and Estella found it increasingly difficult to provide the resources so that Michelle and Karen could spend more time in the skating rink.
There came a point that both Danny and Estella could no longer pay for Michelle’s passion for figure skating, and thus started considering that she lessen her time in doing the sport. Fortunately, Michelle’s natural talents and skills caught the attention of a member of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club, who happily offered the family financial assistance so that both Michelle and her sister Karen could continue training at the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, where they were both mentored by Frank Caroll.
Michelle’s Rise to Figure Skating Stardom
It was not long after Michelle got trained that she immediately showed her amazing talents and skills in figure skating. In 1991, at eleven years old, Michelle landed the ninth spot at the junior level of the United States Figure Skating Championships, and a year later showed enough skills to pass the gold test of becoming a senior-level figure skater in spite of Frank initially disapproving it. By 1993, Michelle’s skills have improved so much that she landed the sixth spot at the senior United States Figure Skating Championships, which was extraordinary considering that she was only thirteen years old at that time.
It was in 1994 that Michelle won her first competitive event, the World Junior Championships. She also landed second at the U.S. Championships, which would have earned her a spot at that year’s Winter Olympic Games, had it not been given to Nancy Kerrigan, who was the previous year’s winner. As such, even though Michelle went to Norway to serve as an alternate, she did not compete.
Michelle, however, got her chance of competing internationally when both of the primary contenders for the United States team, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding (who won first place in the same year’s U.S. championships), dropped out of eligible competition. Because of this, Michelle became the representative for the United States team at this year’s World Championships, where she got the team two spots by landing in the top ten. And although she committed an unusual mistake in the short program, she came back strong in the other events that she landed the eighth spot overall.
The following year, in 1995, Michelle once again won second place in the United States Championships, which was due to her struggling with a particular jump during the short program and free skate. In this year’s World Championships, Michelle improved her skills very much that she was able to finish fourth place in the overall rankings.
Winning the U.S. and World Championships
From that time onwards, Michelle started to improve her figure skating skills by taking on a more ‘mature’ style, which was more artistically expressive and had more difficult routines. Her constant training led her to develop a better form, which enabled her to win both the 1996 U.S. Championships and World Championships, bringing her to international stardom with her success.
In 1997, Michelle debuted the move for which she would be known throughout her career afterwards, the “change of edge spiral.” However, in this year’s U.S. Championships she encountered several issues, particularly with her jumps due to problems with the skating boots she was wearing, which was for an endorsement contract with a certain manufacturer. Because of this, Michelle lost the championship and fell second place in both the U.S. Championships and the World Championships (in spite of performing a spectacular six triple, mistake-free skate).
This setback would not, however, cause Michelle to lose heart, but instead, it helped her focus more on improving her skills. During the 1998 season, Michelle made an amazing comeback by winning the Skate America and Skate Canada events. However, she had to withdraw from the Championship Series Final due to a foot injury she had. Fully recovered, Michelle continued her winning streak by taking back the U.S. Championship Title (in spite of competing with a toe injury), where her performance was named the highest point in her career, receiving perfect scores and even leaving one of the judges in tears of amazement.
The Winter Olympic Games
Having performed so well in the national category, Michelle became a favourite to win that year’s Winter Olympic Games. However, her performances put her behind Tara Lipinski, which caused her to end up winning the silver medal instead of the gold. Not long after the Olympic Games, both Tara Lipinski and Chen Lu, who were strong competitors of Michelle, decided to retire from competitive skating, leaving Michelle open to win the World Championships.
This same year, Michelle graduated from her high school studies at the Rim of the World High School and went on to apply at the University of California, Los Angeles, for her college degree. She left, however, after one year.
In 1999, Michelle successfully defended her U.S. Championship title, but lost her World Championship title to Maria Butyrskaya, a rising figure skater from Russia. During this year’s season, Michelle opted to skate in made for television skating events rather than professional skating tournaments, thus lessening her appearances in the Grand Prix season.
The following year, in 2000, Michelle made a controversial win at the United States Figure Skating Championships, which, in spite of dozens of criticisms from various groups, still got her to have the best performance of the night in the free skate event. She landed second in the World Championships again, but she managed to regain her title in 2001, as well as her fifth U.S. Championships title.
In 2002, just two days before Skate America started, Michelle announced that she and her coach Frank Carroll decided to go their separate ways and that she had to take responsibility of her skating. And so, she entered almost all of the competitions that year without a coach, but still managed to perform very well that she won the U.S. Championships, a bronze medal in the Winter Olympic Games, and landed second place in the World Championships.
Keeping her Winning Streak
From 2003 to 2005, Michelle continued her winning streak at the United States Figure Skating Championships and Skate America, impressing audiences with her spectacular performances. In fact, during the 2002-2003 competitive season, Michelle managed to win every single event she competed in with her programs such as “The Feeling Begins” by Peter Gabriel and “Concierto de Aranjuez.” All in all, Michelle garnered nine U.S. Championship titles, making her the second person to have reached that mark, after Maribel Vinson-Owen. In the 2005 World Championships, however, Michelle failed to win any medals, landing fourth place in the overall rankings.
Michelle wanted to join the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, but a hip injury caused her to withdraw three major competitive events that year. And although she managed to recover and prove herself fit to compete, she suffered another injury which sealed her withdrawal from the games overall. After her decision to withdraw, Michelle was approached by NBC Sports to be a figure skating commentator, but she declined, stating that she was not yet going to retire.
From Figure Skating to Diplomacy: A New Chapter in Michelle’s Life
Eventually, the 2005 World Championships became Michelle’s last competitive event, as from 2006 onwards, she decided to turn her attention to finishing her studies. In the fall of 2006, Michelle entered the University of Denver to take international studies as well as political science. She also began her diplomatic work sometime during this season, by being appointed as a public advocacy envoy by the United States State Department. Years later, during an interview, Michelle said of her career in the diplomatic world:
“By being appointed a diplomatic envoy plus my involvement with the Council and Special Olympics, I’ve been able to give back. I want to be a good citizen, a great athlete, a great student, a great sister and a great daughter. Those are things I hope for in my life—and to make a difference in people’s lives through public service. I want to be able to say I’ve made a difference.”
Michelle graduated from the University of Denver in 2009 and earned her bachelor’s degree in both courses she took. When she was interviewed whether she would go back to figure skating, Michelle stated that she decided to further pursue her studies as she saw the kind of impact she was making with the work she was doing as a diplomat. She said:
“Representing the United States as an American Public Diplomacy Envoy the past three years has been very rewarding, and I want to do more. Furthering my education will bring me closer to that goal, and I don't want to wait any longer to continue the journey.”
And so, not long after earning her bachelor’s degree, Michelle entered Tufts University and pursued a master’s degree in international relations at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, wherein she graduated in 2011. A year before her graduation, Michelle was awarded with an honorary doctorate by Southern Vermont College. During the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Michelle took a brief break from her studies so she could become a commentator for Good Morning America.
Using Figure Skating As a Means of Diplomacy
Although completely out of the competitive arena, Michelle did not stay away from her passion as a figure skater. In 2009, she made her first appearance in several years at the Ice All Stars show in South Korea as well as the All That Skate shows in South Korea and Los Angeles. The following year, she guested at the opening of the skate rink in the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore, where she also went to promote ice skating as part of her work as a diplomat.
In 2011, Michelle was appointed to serve as an adviser for the U.S.-China Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue, a campaign to improve friendly relations between both countries. She also went to Singapore once again as a representative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The following year, in 2012, she was reported to have been appointed as the senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Michelle Kwan Marries Clay Pell
It was also in 2011 that Michelle would finally meet the love of her life, Clay Pell. Clay, who was the grandson of a former Rhode Island Senator, worked as the director of strategic planning for the White House National Security staff. After several months, the relationship blossomed into romance, and in September of 2012, the couple announced their engagement. They were married in January 2013; Michelle’s gown was made by famous fashion designer Vera Wang, who also previously designed her outfits back when she was still competing in figure skating.
Michelle’s extraordinary career is such that even though years after she left competitive figure skating, she still remained to be the most popular American figure skater in the world. In fact, since she began her professional figure skating career, she has received numerous endorsement contracts from very well-known international companies such as VISA, Coca-Cola and KRAFT. She was also the only inductee of the 2012 United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame as well as the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, proving just how tremendous her popularity has been all these years.
Today, Michelle continues to amaze us with her work in the diplomatic arena by utilizing her passion for the benefit of others. Aside from her work as an international diplomat for the United States, Michelle also actively supports and promotes figure skating programs to help divert the youth’s attention from drugs and other destructive activities. Looking back at her career, Michelle has indeed proven herself exceptional at everything she does—from competitive figure skating to the diplomatic arena.
As Brian Boitano, a former Olympic figure skating champion, puts it:
“Michelle's legacy still is incomparable. If people take time to look at her body of work that equalizes the one thing she doesn't have. I covered that entire body of work - the two Olympic medals, the five world titles, the nine U.S. titles. Her consistency and great level of artistry and athletic ability set her apart.”
Michelle’s story is amazing in such that it inspires us to dream big and use our passions for the benefit of others. Like Michelle, who started out as an ordinary young girl that followed her dreams and passion and became one of the world’s most significant figures, we also have the capacity to inspire the world in our own way. When she was asked about her most significant achievement, Michelle simply answered:
“Being able to have such a long career in skating, look at it and say, 'There is more to what I am going to do in my life.' It’s being able to acknowledge how amazing my life has been in the world of figure skating and also aspire to do something else.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
- R.E.W.A.R.D.S. Scholarship Program
- Women-LEAD Project
Awards and Achievements
- 1992: Won the Gardena Championship
- 1993: Won the Junior Worlds Championship
- 1995: Won the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final Championship
- 1995: Won the Grand Prix of Nations Cup Championship
- 1995: Won the World Figure Skating Championship
- 1995: Won the Skate America Championship
- 1995: Won the Skate Canada Championship
- 1995: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 1996: Won the Skate America Championship
- 1996: Won the Trophee Eric Bombard
- 1997: Won Silver Medal at the Winter Olympic Games
- 1997: Won the World Figure Skating Championship
- 1997: Won the Skate America Championship
- 1997: Won the Skate Canada Championship
- 1997: Won the Goodwill Games Championship
- 1997: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 1998: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 1999: Won the World Figure Skating Championship
- 1999: Won the Skate America Championship
- 1999: Won the Skate Canada Championship
- 1999: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2000: Won the World Figure Skating Championship
- 2000: Won the Skate America Championship
- 2000: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2001: Won the Skate America Championship
- 2001: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2001: Received the James E. Sullivan Award
- 2002: Won the World Figure Skating Championship
- 2002: Won the Skate America Championship
- 2002: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2003: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2004: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2005: Won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship
- 2010: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Southern Vermont College
Wikipedia (Michelle Kwan)
Biography.com (Michelle Kwan biography)
Golden Skate (Michelle Kwan: Online Interview)
Chicago Tribune (Kwan on Kwan: Longevity hallmark of Hall of Fame career)
Examiner.com (Diplomacy is skating its way in Michelle Kwan's life)