At the turn of the millennium, Michelle Kwan was on top of the world. She overcame broken bones, supposed skater rivalries, and an unexpected growth spurt to win the silver medal for Team USA at Nagano in 1998. Then she medaled again, this time taking home the bronze, in 2002 at Salt Lake City. With her slick fashion sense, wholesome image, commercial endorsements, and record-breaking list of wins, Kwan was unstoppable … until an unexpected injury took her out of the running in 2006, and her career started to cool off.
Since then, Kwan has been relatively quiet on the public front, despite joining the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2012. Even as her once-"nemesis" Tara Lipinski was staging daily fashion shows at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Kwan has mostly stayed on the sidelines. So, what’s behind Michelle Kwan’s lowkey lifestyle over the last few years? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons you don’t hear much from the supreme figure skater anymore.
Leaving the ice
Following her successful runs at the 1998 and 2002 Olympic games, Kwan seemed likely to win big at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. However, she ultimately dropped out of the competition just days before it would begin, citing continued pain from a groin injury. And at that, her career paused at just 25 years old. "There’s no easy transition for professional athletes, Olympians, because you focus your whole life — for 20 years of my life, it was all about skating," she told People TV. "And then, when I finished it was like, ‘Now what?’ I think athletes struggle with the identity."
Luckily for Kwan, that familial support system that helped her keep her head on her shoulders during her Olympic career also helped guide her in the right direction after her time on the rink was done. Immediately after she withdrew from the 2006 Olympics, she enrolled in college at the University of Denver and worked as a volunteer State Department diplomat while attending school. Kwan found a second passion for diplomacy during her time with the government, and, instead of trying to stage a comeback for the 2010 Olympics, she went on to earn Master’s Degree from Tufts. "It didn’t feel like it was a hard choice, but it was the right one for me at this time," she told The Boston Globe. "Grad school, new experience, everything that I’ve always wanted. It’s a new path.’"
Her own worst critic
Being thrust into the international spotlight can put a lot of pressure on a young woman, especially one whose figure is such an essential element of her success. For Kwan, she quietly battled with body image and self esteem issues when she was younger.
In 2017, she opened up to Cosmopolitan about her silent struggle, telling the magazine, "I was a teenager and going through puberty very publicly, it was tough. 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." She credits her mother’s devotion and care to her ability to overcome her self doubts and has decided to be that source of strength for others who might need it. "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," she said.
She added that the social media generation can only serve to heighten that intense self-scrutiny, what with the barrage of comments from outsiders. While she maintains an energetic digital presence, she doesn’t get too personal with her posts and is certainly not scoring any headlines as a result of them.
Refusing to fan the feud flames
Another reason Kwan doesn’t make so many media waves as she did during her time on the ice is that she has declined to continue her supposed feud with Tara Lipinski.
In January 2018, Kwan denied that there was ever really any bad blood between them. "I think what the media likes to play up is this like rivalry between athletes. When in fact, you’re only competing against yourself and you’re trying to do your very best," she told NBC. "In figure skating, you have four minutes to do your best. It’s your time, you do your best. You know? As opposed to — it’s not a tennis match. I’m not directly against a person. I’m there to do my best."
However, Kwan has admitted that she did have a minor rivalry with Russian skater Irina Slutskaya, whom she competed with throughout her youth. "We were both able to be very serious; in the locker room, there was always a very thick tension because we were so focused and in our zone," she told Chicago Tribune. "But we were able to be on tour together and joke around. We definitely rooted for one another. It was like, ‘Let the best person win.’"
A tough break
The conclusion of her competitive skating career isn’t the only difficult ending Michelle Kwan has had to endure. In 2017, her husband of four years, Clay Pell, filed for divorce from Kwan, citing irreconcilable differences. Pell, a former Obama Administration staffer who once ran for governor of Rhode Island, told People, "It is with deep regret that I share that Michelle and my marriage is coming to an end. This is a sad and difficult turn of events for our family. I love Michelle, and wish her the very best as her life takes her in a new direction." While that may sound like standard fare when it comes to divorce statements, there was a lot more to it than that.
Court documents later revealed that Kwan was caught completely off guard by Pell’s filing and in fact had only found out that he was ending their marriage through Twitter. "Plaintiff initially learned that the Defendant had filed for divorce in California by means of a ‘Tweet’ on March 29, 2017 and shortly thereafter from the online copy of an article published in the New York Daily News," paperwork revealed. She later filed for divorce, as well (via Providence Journal), and the whole ordeal marked an unusual moment of messiness in the media for Kwan, who’d otherwise maintained a steady image.
In addition to working with the State Department and supporting her ex-husband’s career in public service, Kwan has also done a lot of political work behind the scenes. In 2016, she began working for then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, even running a phone bank for the former Secretary of State.
Her title for the campaign was "surrogate outreach coordinator," which essentially meant that she was on hand to help bring in other celebrity voices to support Clinton’s bid for the White House. "There was no way that I could sit on the sidelines and watch it without getting involved. It was a very quick decision," she told New York Magazine.
She added that, for her, supporting Clinton was a no-brainer, given her family’s own immigrant history. "Every day I’m reminded about my personal story, about what’s at stake in these elections. I think of my parents, and as I look around the room, we probably share similar stories, of how our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents might have immigrated to the U.S.," she told the magazine. "It’s so the next generation of Americans have the ability to dream that dream."
Alas, Clinton was not successful in winning the 2016 race, and, as of early 2018, Kwan is still not ready to discuss Clinton’s loss. She told Mic simply, "Let’s not talk about that. I don’t think there would be enough time to talk about that."
Returning to the rink
Although 2017 was difficult for Kwan on a personal level, she did get the chance to return to the rink and seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. She shared a video of herself performing a few key moves on the ice and captioned it, "I need to ice skate more often I forget how fun it is!!" She’s since shared more glimpses of herself getting back to business, including shots of her completing some impressive jumps.
She told W magazine that she decided to lace up her skates once again after watching other youngsters like Mirai Nagasu prepare for the world stage, saying, "I said, ‘You know, I should do it before I’m 40.’ You don’t realize how quickly age crawls up to you." Of course, it’s not been so easy for her to slip right back into her old routines. "Once you’re on the ice, there are so many things: It’s rhythm, once you’re up in the air, and falling … I fall, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that hurt,’" she told the magazine. Still, she always seems to get right back up.
As she told Time, "You fall every day, whether it’s in a job, or you miss something else, but you learn how to do it better next time. You learn it in sports. That’s a life lesson."
Steering clear of a certain stage
Olympians — figure skaters in particular — gravitate toward Dancing with the Stars pretty naturally these days, but Michelle Kwan doesn’t seem to want that kind of attention. Although she is reportedly in high demand for the show, with audiences showing a significant interest in seeing her dominate the world of dance, she has politely declined on multiple occasions. "I’ve been asked a few times, but each time I was either going to school or touring," she told Forbes. Part of the reason Kwan has been hesitant about doing a reality competition series like that, as so many of her peers have done, is that she’s reticent to re-approach the spotlight. "It just doesn’t come naturally to stand up and speak in front of people. And that’s kind of crazy since I skated in front of thousands of fans for years," she told ESPN. "It takes a lot of effort for me to come out of my shell."
Although Kwan has admitted that such an opportunity looks "fun," she also knows that it would require a lot of personal investment. "I just don’t know if I can find the time right now, moving to Los Angeles for the show. I love all these new challenges I’m facing. I still need to see what I can do with this life."
Michelle Kwan’s history as a diplomat has served her well in recent years, as she has exhibited a passion for promoting humanitarian causes. In May 2018, she was part of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment’s campaign to promote American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, recalling her own family’s journey that informed her own. "My parents sacrificed so much to give me the opportunity to figure skate," she explained in a video. "My parents immigrated to the United States in their early twenties with nothing in their pocket but a seed of hope to build a better future for their children."
She’s also worked with the Women’s Sports Foundation for years in hopes of supporting other ambitious young women who may benefit from the same grant that helped to fund her own early athletic work. "My parents struggled to make ends meet, let alone pay for skating bills," she told New York Live. "Whatever Women’s Sports Foundation needs, whatever I can do to empower young girls to participate in sports, [I’m in]."
We doubt her momentum for doing good will be slowing any time soon.