Michelle Wingshan Kwan (born July 7, 1980) is a retired American figure skater. She is a two-time Olympic medalist (silver in 1998, bronze in 2002), a five-time World champion (1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003) and a nine-time U.S. champion (1996, 1998–2005). She is tied with Maribel Vinson for the all-time National Championship record.
She competed at the senior level for over a decade and is the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history. Known for her consistency and expressive artistry on ice, she is widely considered one of the greatest figure skaters of all time.
For well over a decade, Kwan maintained her status not only as America's most popular figure skater but as one of America's most popular female athletes. During her reign Kwan landed numerous major endorsement deals, starred in multiple TV specials and was the subject of extensive media coverage. From 1997 to 2005, she was the U.S. Figure Skating Association's top-paid skater in appearance fees and prize money, as well as one of the highest paid Winter Olympic athletes in endorsements. Kwan was also the highest paid skater on the Champions on Ice tours.
Early life and career
Born in Torrance, California, Michelle is the third child of Danny Kwan and Estella Kwan, immigrants from Hong Kong. As a child, Kwan grew up speaking a mixture of Cantonese and English at home. Kwan’s interest in figure skating began at the age of five when she followed her two older siblings (ice hockey player Ron and figure skater Karen) onto the ice. Karen and Michelle began serious training when Michelle was about eight years old. They practiced three to four hours a day, waking up at 4:30am and arriving at the rink at 5:00am to skate before school, and then going back to the rink right after school to skate again. Paying for their increased skating-rink time led to financial hardship for Kwan’s working-class family. When Kwan was ten years old, her family could no longer afford a coach, but they were offered financial assistance by a fellow member of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club
Kwan attended Soleado Elementary School in Palos Verdes, California, but left public school to be homeschooled in 1994, when she was in the 8th grade. After graduation from Rim of the World High School in 1998, Kwan attended UCLA for one year. In the fall of 2006, she transferred to the University of Denver. In June 2009, she graduated from Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies with a bachelor's degree in international studies and a minor in political science. In 2009, she began graduate studies in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and graduated in 2011. On May 8, 2010, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Southern Vermont College.
Kwan won five World Championships (1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003), tying her with Carol Heiss (1956–1960) for the most world titles by an American. Kwan's nine world medals overall is the all-time record for an American skater in any discipline. The only ladies' singles skater with more world titles or medals is Sonia Henie of Norway. Kwan won nine U.S. Championships (1996, 1998–2005), tying the record for most wins set by Maribel Vinson-Owen (1928–1933, 1935–1937). She holds the record for the most consecutive U.S. titles (eight) and most consecutive U.S. Championship medals (twelve). She also earned the silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the bronze medal in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Kwan has received a combined total of 57 perfect marks (6.0s) at major competitions, the singles record under the former 6.0 judging system.
In 1991, Michelle Kwan and her sister Karen began training with Frank Carroll in Lake Arrowhead, California. After one year of coaching by Carroll, 11-year-old Michelle placed 9th at the junior level at the United States Figure Skating Championships. At the age of 12 in 1992, Michelle passed the gold test to become a senior-level figure skater despite the disapproval of her coach. In 1993, Kwan finished sixth at her first senior U.S. championships. The next season, she won the 1994 World Junior Championships.
In 1994, Kwan finished second to Tonya Harding at the U.S. Championships, which ordinarily would have placed her on the U.S. team to the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. That place was instead given to 1993 national champion Nancy Kerrigan, who had been sidelined by an assault and battery (eventually connected to Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly) after a practice session at those championships. The 13-year-old Kwan went to Norway as an alternate but did not compete. Kerrigan and Harding both dropped out of eligible competition before the 1994 World Championships. Because of this (and teammate Nicole Bobek not making out of the qualifying round), Kwan had the sole responsibility to ensure two entries for the U.S. at the 1994 World Championships by placing in the top ten. Kwan had an unusual mistake in the short program and placed eleventh in that portion of the competition, but skated a strong freestyle program and finished eighth overall.
At the 1995 U.S. Championships, Nicole Bobek won the gold medal, while Kwan again placed second after struggling with her lutz jump in both the short program and free skate. At the 1995 World Championships, she placed fifth in the short program portion of the competition with a clean performance. She landed seven triple jumps in her free skating performance and placed third in that portion of the competition. She finished fourth overall.
Artistic development and 1998 Olympics
Michelle began to develop a more mature style in 1996. Her new, more artistically expressive programs were "Romanza" (short program) and "Salome" (free skate). She also improved her extension, speed and jump technique, and performed to more difficult choreography. She won both the U.S. Championships and the World Championships in 1996. In the later event, she edged out defending champion Chen Lu in a very close competition in which both competitors garnered two perfect 6.0s for Presentation in the free skate.
In the 1996–97 season, Kwan skated to "Dream of Desdemona" (short program) and "Taj Mahal" (free skate). During this season, Kwan struggled with her jumps because of a growth spurt and problems with new skating boots which she wore for an endorsement contract with the manufacturer. She fell twice and stumbled once in her free skate at 1997 U.S. Nationals, losing the title to Tara Lipinski. She lost the Champion Series Final to Lipinski a month later. At the World Championships, Kwan stepped out of her triple lutz combination and placed 4th in the Short Program portion of the competition behind Lipinski, France's Vanessa Gusmeroli, and Russia's Maria Butyrskaya. Kwan skated a six triple, mistake-free performance to win the freestyle portion of the competition, but placed second to Lipinski overall.
Kwan started out the 1997–1998 Olympic season by winning Skate America (where she defeated Tara Lipinski) and then Skate Canada. However, she suffered a stress fracture on her foot and was forced to withdraw from her third Champions Series Final. Kwan regained her U.S. title from Lipinski at the 1998 National Championships, despite her fractured toe. Many people consider her performances of her Rachmaninoff short program and free skate set to William Alwyn's "Lyra Angelica" at the 1998 U.S. Championships to be the high point of her career from both a technical and artistic standpoint. The performances earned her fifteen perfect 6.0s and left two judges in tears.
Kwan and Lipinski were co-favorites to win the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. Kwan placed first in the Short Program portion of the competition, winning eight first place votes out of nine judges. In the free skate, Kwan skated a clean 7-triple performance but placed behind Lipinski, who also did 7 triples including a triple loop/triple loop combination and a triple toe-loop/half-loop/Triple Salchow. Kwan ended up winning the silver medal, with the gold medal going to Tara Lipinski and the bronze medal to Chen Lu.
Lipinski and Chen both retired from competitive skating shortly after the Olympics, while Kwan went on to win the 1998 World Championships in Minneapolis.
From 1998 to 2002 Olympics
Kwan continued to compete as an eligible skater in the 1998–99 season, although she bypassed the fall Grand Prix season and instead chose to skate in a series of made-for-television pro-am events. Her "regular" competitive programs that season were "Fate of Carmen" (short program) and "Lamento D'Ariane" (free skate). Kwan won her third national title at the 1999 U.S. Championships, competing against a weak field. At the 1999 World Championships, Kwan did not skate her best, and placed second behind Russian competitor Maria Butyrskaya.
Kwan's win at the 2000 U.S. Nationals was controversial to some. She was criticized for planning an easier solo jump in her short program than some of her competitors (a triple toe loop rather than a triple flip), and fell on this element in the competition. The judges nevertheless placed her third in that segment behind younger challengers Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes; however, the placement still kept her in contention for the title. Ultimately, she won the free skate with the best performance of the night, capturing 8 of the 9 first-place ordinals. At the 2000 World Championships, Kwan was again in third place after the short program, behind Maria Butyrskaya and Irina Slutskaya. In her free skate, Kwan landed seven triple jumps, including a triple toe loop/triple toe loop combination, and won that segment of the competition. Butyrskaya lost her commanding lead by finishing third behind Slutskaya in the free skate, allowing Kwan to win the overall title as well.
During the 2000–2001 season, Kwan began working with the famed designer (and former figure skater) Vera Wang, who designed most of her competition and exhibition costumes for the next six years. Kwan was only the second figure skater Wang designed for, following Nancy Kerrigan. At that year's national championships, Kwan again won the title, receiving first-place ordinals from all 9 judges in both the short program and free skate. At the 2001 World Championships, Kwan was second behind Slutskaya in the short program. Kwan won the title with her "Song of the Black Swan" free skate, executing 7 triples, including a triple toe loop/triple toe loop combination.
Kwan and Carroll decided to end their coaching relationship two days before the start of the 2001 Skate America competition. In interviews, Kwan said she needed to "take responsibility" for her skating. Coachless, Kwan arrived at the 2002 U.S. Championships in Los Angeles amid the media's scrutiny over her separation with Carroll and her season's inconsistencies. Kwan won the competition with a revived "Rachmaninoff" short program and a new "Scheherazade" program for her free skate, securing a place on the 2002 Olympic team. Joining her on the team were Sasha Cohen (second) and Sarah Hughes (third). The 21-year-old Kwan and Russia's Irina Slutskaya were favorites to win the gold. Kwan led after the short program, followed by Slutskaya, Cohen, and Hughes. In the free skate, Kwan two-footed her triple toe loop combination and fell on her triple flip, while Sarah Hughes skated a clean program. Kwan won the bronze medal behind Hughes and Slutskaya. Kwan's final event of the season was the 2002 Worlds, where she won the silver medal behind Slutskaya.
Kwan began working with coach Scott Williams in the summer of 2002. She continued to compete on the Olympic-eligible circuit, although in a more limited way. During the fall seasons of 2002 to 2004, Kwan competed in only one Grand Prix event, Skate America in the fall of 2002, which she entered as a last-minute replacement. She won the event and qualified for the Grand Prix Final but chose not to compete in it. Kwan chose to not compete in Grand Prix events in the 2003 and 2004 seasons where the new judging system was being used. Kwan won all phases of every competition she entered in the 2002–2003 competitive season with her programs: Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins" from The Last Temptation of Christ (short program) and "Concierto de Aranjuez" (free skate). She won the U.S. Championships again and regained her World title.
In autumn 2003, she hired the noted technician Rafael Arutyunyan as her coach, with whom she attempted to increase the technical difficulty of her programs and hone her jump technique. In the 2003–2004 competitive season, she skated again to "The Feeling Begins" for her short program, and Puccini's "Tosca" for her long program. Again, Kwan won the U.S. Championships, earning seven more 6.0s for presentation during the free skating. At the 2004 World Championships, after a difficult qualifying round, Kwan was penalized in her short program for going two seconds over the time limit. This caused her to place fourth going into the long program, behind American Sasha Cohen, Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, and Miki Ando. Kwan skated a clean performance with five triples and received the last 6.0 marks given at the World Championships. She placed second in the free skating portion (she was one judge short from winning the free skating) and placed third overall, behind Arakawa (who performed seven triples, including two triple-triple combinations) and Cohen.
For the 2004–2005 competitive season, Kwan skated her long program to "Boléro", choreographed by British ice dancer Christopher Dean who had famously skated to the music with Jayne Torvill two decades before, and debuted a new short program, "Adagio" from Aram Khachaturian's ballet Spartacus. At the U.S. Championships, she won her 9th title, tying the all-time record previously set by Maribel Vinson-Owen. Vinson-Owen had coached Frank Carroll, who in turn coached Kwan. At the 2005 World Championship, Kwan competed for the first time under the new judging system. She had a rough qualifying round and placed third in the short program. In the free skate, Kwan fell on her triple salchow and two-footed a triple lutz. Although she finished third in both the short and long program portion of the competition, Kwan was edged by Carolina Kostner for the bronze medal and finished fourth overall, missing third place by 0.37 points. It was the first time since 1995 that Kwan had failed to medal at any international competition, and would be her final competitive event.
Kwan looked at the 2005 Worlds as a learning experience in the ISU Judging System. She continued to train and stated that she would attempt to qualify for the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. However, following a hip injury, she was forced to withdraw from her three planned competitions in the fall of 2005. Kwan skated her new short program ("Totentanz") at a made-for-TV event in December 2005, but her performance was well below her usual standard. On January 4, 2006, Kwan withdrew from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with an abdominal injury incurred in December 2005. One week later, she filed a petition with the USFSA for a medical waiver to be placed on the 2006 Olympic figure skating team. On January 14, 2006, after the United States ladies' figure skating event, the USFSA's International Committee met and in a 20 to 3 vote approved Kwan's petition under the stipulation that she show her physical and competitive readiness to a five-member monitoring panel by January 27.
Kwan performed her long and short programs for the panel on the stipulated day, and her spot on the Olympic team was established, as the panel felt she was fit to compete. However, on February 12, 2006, the United States Olympic Committee announced that Kwan had withdrawn from the Games after suffering a new groin injury in her first practice in Turin. Kwan remarked that she "respected the Olympics too much to compete". The Turin organizing committee accepted the USOC's application for Emily Hughes (who had finished third at the U.S. Championships) to compete as Kwan's replacement.
After her withdrawal from the Olympic team, Kwan turned down an offer to stay in Turin as a figure skating commentator for NBC Sports. During an interview with Bob Costas and Scott Hamilton, Kwan said she was not retiring yet.
Kwan underwent elective arthroscopic surgery in August 2006 to repair a torn labrum in her right hip, an old injury which she traces back to 2002. According to Kwan, the surgery allowed her to skate pain-free for the first time in four years.
Kwan did not compete during the 2006–2007 figure skating season.
Kwan told the Associated Press in October 2007 that she would decide in 2009 if she planned to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics, but she ultimately decided not to do so, focusing instead on graduate school. She has 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." After graduating from the University of Denver in 2009, Kwan said "Furthering my education will bring me closer to that goal, and I don't want to wait any longer to continue the journey."
On February 17, 2010, Kwan told ABC News in an interview that she was continuing her studies as a graduate student at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, as well as continuing her work as a Public Diplomacy Envoy. Kwan also said she would be commentating for Good Morning America at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
In August 2009, Kwan made her first on-ice appearance in several years, performing at Ice All Stars, a show headlined by South Korean world champion Yuna Kim in Seoul, South Korea. Kim considered Kwan her idol growing up. Kwan also later appeared in Kim's All That Skate shows in South Korea and Los Angeles.
She was chosen as the guest of honor to help open a new synthetic skating rink at the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore in December 2010, where she performed a modified routine to "Winter Song", a program she self-choreographed with her sister. She returned to Singapore a month later as a Public Diplomacy Envoy to meet local students and to promote ice skating in the tropical country.
As of 2008, Kwan is a member of the Chinese-American organization Committee of 100. In 2014, Kwan joined Fox Sports 1 for its Winter Olympics broadcast.
Kwan was known for her unrivaled consistency in delivering clean programs, as well as her strong skating skills and deep, quiet edges that have been described as "silent blades" that "barely whispered".
Although not of the greatest height nor explosive spring nor sustained landing, Kwan, for most of her career, included all of the triples (except for the axel) in her programs, including two lutzes (the most difficult jump after the axel). She landed the triple toe-triple toe combination cleanly eleven times in competition, including at her 2000 and 2001 world championship victories. During the 2004–2005 season, she debuted a triple flip-double toe-double loop combination.
Beginning in the 1996–1997 season, Kwan debuted a change of edge spiral that soon became her signature move. Kwan's spiral was famed by commentators not only for its great extension and line, but also its speed, the strength and security of the edge, the deep lean and the easy smoothness of the change of edge. In the 1998–1999 season, Kwan revived a variation of the Charlotte spiral, a move innovated by German skater Charlotte Oelschlägel which had not been performed in decades.
Kwan's split falling leaf was praised by skating legends Dick Button and Peggy Fleming during competitions for its effortlessness and perfect split position in the air. Kwan has done multiple split falling leaves in immediate succession (without any turns or steps in between) while maintaining a split position on both.
Another of her trademark moves is a Y-spin done consecutively on both feet. Kwan is also one of the few skaters who can spin in both directions.
Awards and accolades
Kwan is a recipient of the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award (2001), which is given to America's best amateur athlete; she was the first figure skater to win the award since Dick Button in 1949. In 2003, she was named the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) "Sportswoman of the Year", and is the 5th figure skater in history to receive this honor. She has also been named USOC "Athlete of the Month" fourteen times, which is more than any other athlete, male or female, as well as being named "Female Figure Skating Athlete of the Year" by the USOC multiple times. She is also the recipient of the USOC's "Citizenship Through Sports Alliance Award" (2004).
Kwan is one of only two multiple winners of the "Readers' Choice Figure Skater of the Year" award given by Skating magazine, winning it an unprecedented seven times (1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001–2003). In 2003, the United States Figure Skating Association, which publishes Skating, announced that the award would be renamed the "Michelle Kwan Trophy." The USFSA stated that although Kwan may continue to skate competitively, she would no longer be eligible for the award. The only other skater to win the award multiple times, Johnny Weir, only won it twice in comparison.
- In 1999, Kwan was given the Historymakers Award by the Los Angeles Chinese American Museum.
- In May 2000, Kwan was selected as one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people.
- In 2002, Kwan won the Teen Choice Award for favorite female athlete.
- In 2002, Kwan was chosen as Cosmogirl of the year.
- In 2002 and 2003, Kwan won the Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Award for favorite female athlete.
- In 2005, Kwan traveled to Beijing to accept an award for being the "female athlete kids in China most admire" at the inaugural CCTV-Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Honors.
- In 2007, Kwan again was honored in Beijing at the "You bring Charm to the World" Awards as one of the most influential Chinese people. Other winners that night included Jackie Chan and Gong Li.
- In 2007, the Women's Sports Foundation honored Kwan with the Billie Jean Award for her contribution to women's sports.
- In May 2009, Kwan was honored by the Los Angeles Chinese Historical Society of Southern California in "Celebrating Chinese Americans in Sports".
- In 2010, Kwan received an honorary doctorate's degree from Southern Vermont College and delivered the commencement speech for that year's graduation.
- In 2012, Kwan was the sole inductee for the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame. She was also the sole inductee for the 2012 World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
- In 2014, Kwan was honored by Harlem Skating for her career.
- In 2017, Kwan was inducted into the California sports Hall of Fame.
On November 9, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Michelle Kwan as a public diplomacy ambassador. In this non-salaried position, Kwan represented American values, especially to young people and sports enthusiasts, and traveled widely. Kwan made her first overseas trip in the capacity of public diplomacy ambassador with a visit to China from January 17–25, 2007.
Her diplomatic position as an envoy continued in the Barack Obama administration where she worked with Vice President Joe Biden and then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Following her first trip to China as a public diplomacy envoy, Kwan continued her role in subsequent trips to Russia in June 2007, Argentina in March 2008, Ukraine in February 2009, South Korea in January 2010, and Singapore in January 2011.
On April 15, 2011, it was announced that Kwan would serve as an adviser to the U.S.-China Women's Leadership Exchange and Dialogue (Women-LEAD). In December 2012, Kwan was appointed as a State Department senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs.
In June 2015, Michelle Kwan announced that she will support Hillary Clinton's campaign efforts by working on outreach efforts from Clinton's headquarters in Brooklyn.
Kwan has guest-starred as herself in "Homer and Ned's Hail Mary Pass", an episode of The Simpsons, and in the Family Guy episode "A Hero Sits Next Door". She has also made guest star appearances in Arthur, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and various other television series. She provided the voice of a shopkeeper in Disney's direct-to-DVD sequel Mulan II, and she and fellow figure skater Brian Boitano appeared as announcers in the film Ice Princess.
In 1998, Kwan struck a deal with Walt Disney Television that led to her starring in 3 prime-time skating specials on ABC: "Reflections on Ice" in 1998 (an ice skating adaptation of the Disney film Mulan, based on the Chinese legend), "Michelle Kwan skates to Disney's Greatest Hits" in 1999, and "Princess on Ice" in 2001, the last special featuring performances by pop bands O-Town and Shedaisy. She also appeared in various other televised skating specials throughout her career.
In 1999, she appeared in the Michelle Kwan Figure Skating computer game, released by Electronic Arts.
Scholastic published an autobiography by Kwan in 1998, titled Heart of a Champion, which is now in its sixth printing.
In 1999, Kwan signed with Disney Publishing Worldwide for an 8-book deal which included an inspirational book for children titled, The Winning Attitude: What it Takes to be a Champion, as well as a series of fictional skating books inspired by Kwan and written by Nola Thacker called "Michelle Kwan presents Skating Dreams".
In 2005, Kwan's family opened the EastWest Ice Palace in Artesia, California. The ice rink houses many of her skating medals and memorabilia.
In January 2009, Kwan was appointed a member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports by George W. Bush, a role which she had continued into the Obama administration.
Kwan has been a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics, taking part in "unified sports" events, which bring together athletes with intellectual disabilities and without. In 2011, she was added to the board of directors for the Special Olympics.
Kwan has had many endorsement contracts throughout her career, including Aim Funds, Campbell's, Caress soap (Unilever), Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Disney, East West Bank, Got milk?, Kraft, Mattel, Maxxis, McDonald's, Minute Maid, Riedell Skates, Royal Caribbean International, Starbucks, United Airlines, Visa, and Yoplait.
Kwan's multi-year deal with Chevrolet (starting in 2000) was estimated to be worth over $1 million. The Chevrolet/Michelle Kwan R.E.W.A.R.D.S. Scholarship program was established by the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors in cooperation with Kwan.
In 2002, Kwan was named a "celebrity representative" and spokeswoman for The Walt Disney Company in a three-year deal reported to be worth $1 million a year. This deal was renewed and expanded in 2006.
Personal and professional life
In September 2012, Kwan announced her engagement to Clay Pell, an American lawyer, military officer and director for strategic planning on the National Security staff at the White House. In February 2014, he declared his candidacy for Governor of Rhode Island. Pell is the grandson of the late Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell. The couple, who met in April 2011, were married on January 19, 2013, in Providence, Rhode Island. Vera Wang designed Kwan's wedding gown. Pell filed for divorce from Kwan in March 2017 in California. A day later Kwan filed for divorce from Pell in Rhode Island; Kwan's attempts to serve Pell directly in April 2017 were unsuccessful.
Kwan worked as a surrogate to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign as an outreach coordinator.
|Season||Short program||Free skating||Exhibition|
Major events for Olympic-eligible skaters include the World Figure Skating Championships, the Olympic Winter Games, the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating, and for American skaters, the U.S. Championships. Kwan's record in these events is listed by season in the tables below.
|GP Nations Cup||1st|
|GP Skate America||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st|
|GP Skate Canada||1st||1st||1st||2nd||3rd|
|U.S. Champ.||9th J||6th||2nd||2nd||1st||2nd||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st||1st|
| GP = Became part of Champions Series in 1995–1996, Grand Prix from 1998–1999
J. = Junior level, WD = Withdrew, Alt = Alternate (did not compete)
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