One of her sport's greatest athletes, Michelle Kwan embodied amazing artistry and athleticism in her awe-inspiring figure skating career. The winner of five World Championships, nine U.S. National Championships, and silver and bronze Olympic medals, Kwan dominated the sport for an unprecedented long stretch that won her countless fans among viewers, peers and experts. Although she never won the Olympic gold medal, Kwan's enormous grace and maturity in the face of her setbacks only endeared her further to the world and solidified her reputation as a gracious competitor. Famous for earning a slew of perfect 6.0 scores for her artistic impression, Kwan pushed herself hard and earned multiple endorsements from companies who appreciated her impeccable, wholesome reputation as well as from the U.S. government, who named her a public diplomacy ambassador. So popular was the skater that she made an impression outside the skating world, with guest spots in such mainstream projects as the Disney films "Ice Princess" (2005) and "Mulan II" (2004) and even starred in her own video game. An exceptional role model and athlete, Michelle Kwan enjoyed an unparalleled legacy and global standing that many felt was worth even more than gold.
Born July 7, 1980 in Torrance, CA, Michelle Kwan was a first-generation American who was the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong. Following in the footsteps of her older figure-skating sister, Karen, Kwan began training in the sport at the age of five, and won her first competition a year later. Displaying an artistry well beyond her years that would become her trademark, Kwan proved so talented, that figure skating quickly became her life, practicing for hours and earning scholarships to help pay for her training. Unlike many of her young peers who peaked early, Kwan seemed only to grow and deepen as she aged, winning the 1994 World Junior Championships and placing second at the U.S. National Championships behind Tonya Harding. Because of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan that rendered her unable to participate in the Nationals, Kwan was forced to settle for an Olympic alternate slot so that Kerrigan could compete. At 13, Kwan was content to attend the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games in this reduced capacity, with many fans and experts praising her maturity and extreme likelihood of ascending to dominate the sport after gaining such valuable experience and showing such exceptional promise.
After the most publicized Winter Olympics in history ended, Kwan finished eighth in the 1994 World Championships and second at the 1995 U.S. National Championships, seeming to struggle with growing pains. Although she had already made such impressive progress, Kwan dazzled her peers, judges and fans when she proved herself capable of even greater artistry and athleticism, reaching an entirely new competitive level where she frequently earned perfect 6.0 marks for her artistic impression. She won the 1996 U.S. Nationals and World Championships and earned second at the 1997 U.S. Nationals and World Championships to Tara Lipinski, her rising, younger, more aggressive competitor. Although Kwan developed a stress fracture in her foot that complicated her competitive season, she won the 1998 U.S. National Championships in an era-defining performance that notched her eight perfect 6.0 marks. As with many sports, figure skating depended on famous rivalries, although the Kwan/Lipinski rivalry was much less notorious and hyped than the ultimate rivalry, Harding/Kerrigan. Going into the 1998 Nagano Olympics, many expected Kwan to achieve her destiny of winning the gold, but the biggest story of the Games turned out to be Lipinski's firecracker performance, which was so dynamic, difficult and fearless that she won the gold medal over Kwan, whose more subdued and tentative performance took the silver.
After the Olympics, Lipinski retired, leaving Kwan to dominate a less competitive field, and she won the 1998 World and U.S. National Championships. In some ways, Kwan's loss at the Olympics humanized her further in the eyes of the general public, again showing her maturity and graceful acceptance of bad news, which earned her greater goodwill than a gold medal might have. Still, she was left in an odd position: the sole remaining superstar of the previous era, competing in an upcoming field of talented but newer skaters whose age probably disqualified her from once again being an Olympic gold medal competitor. She won the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 U.S. National Championships and earned second in the 1999 and 2002 and first in the 2000 and 2001 World Championships. The skater sparked some controversy when she fired her longtime coach and choreographer, but once again earned an Olympic slot for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Unfortunately, Kwan's Olympic performance was not at the standards of her best work, and after a fall, won the bronze medal, once again losing the gold to younger fellow American skater Sarah Hughes who electrified the world with a powerful-under-pressure performance.
After the Olympics, Kwan attempted to remain competitive by training even harder than before, winning the 2003 World Championships and the 2004 and 2005 U.S. National Championships, but once again, timing seemed to work against her. The scoring system for figure skating changed, forcing Kwan to make the difficult transition to a different standard of judging, but it was a testament to her ability and determination that she went on to win third place in the 2004 World Championships. The following year, however, Kwan took fourth at the 2005 World Championships and attempted a return to the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, but was forced to withdraw from the team due to several injuries which would ultimately require surgery. Outside of skating, Kwan earned bachelor's and master's degrees in international studies and was named a public diplomacy ambassador under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Her reputation as one of the sport's most popular and respected competitors was solidified in countless ways, including earning her own video game, 1999's Michelle Kwan Figure Skating, and booking appearances in such varied projects as "Mulan II" (2004), "Ice Princess" (2005) and on "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ). Off the ice, Kwan made headlines in 2012 when she announced her engagement to high-ranking politico Clay Pell.
By Jonathan Riggs
Cast (Feature Film)
Won World Junior Championships; placed second at U.S. National Championships behind Tonya Harding
Attended Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway as an alternate; did not compete
Won silver at U.S. National Championships
Won both U.S. Nationals and World Championships
Placed first at U.S. National Championships with eight perfect 6.0 marks
Made Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan; won silver behind Tara Lipinski
Won World Championships
Guest starred on teen sitcom "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" (ABC)
Featured in video game Michelle Kwan Figure Skating
Won bronze at Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, UT; teammate Sarah Hughes won gold
Guest starred on "The Simpsons" (Fox) and made cameo in feature film "Ice Princess"
Attempted Olympic comeback in Turin, Italy; forced to withdraw from U.S. team due to injuries
Named public diplomacy ambassador by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Made first figure skating appearance in several years, performing at the Ice All Stars
Served as State Department's senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs
Inducted into U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame and World Figure Skating Hall of Fame