In Chubb Lecture, champion skater shares experiences on and off the ice
Being “scrappy” is one attribute that helped famed figure skater Michelle Kwan in her sport and in her life, she told a campus audience on April 3.
Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, came to campus as a Chubb Fellow. She told a packed audience in Yale Law School’s Levinson Auditorium that she sometimes had to give up her sport because her family could not afford the expense of new skates, costumes, ice time, or coaching.
She said her parents — who immigrated to the United States from China with “nothing” — mostly saw her skating as a means to winning a college scholarship. Fortuitously, Kwan — who then had dreams of national and Olympic championships — sometimes received travel and training grants that covered the cost of a new pair of skates or lessons.
“I didn’t have the prettiest costumes or custom skates,” she said, later laughing as she recounted the time her father gave her a pair of skates he claimed were custom, even though no one ever measured her feet. “I turned the skates over and saw a skater’s name blacked out; my dad had written ‘Michelle’ on them,” she said.
Before the 1993 national championships, she borrowed a costume from a fellow skater, one that didn’t match well with the music for her program, she recalled. What mattered to Kwan, however, was that she was there. “I made it all the way to the national championship without a coach,” she told her audience, later adding, “I was a little scrappy and I persevered and I’m a little hard headed.” She said that in challenging times, she always thought, “I’ll get there somehow and I’ll make do.”
Kwan took part in a conversation with Mary Lui, professor of history and American studies, who as the head of Timothy Dwight College is the steward of the Chubb Fellowship. One of the most prestigious honors conferred on visiting speakers at Yale, it brings to campus individuals who have been devoted to public service.
In the Q&A, Kwan discussed her skating career and the lessons it taught her, as well as her work as the first Public Diplomacy Envoy and senior adviser to the U.S. Department of State, working with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In the former post, she traveled the world speaking to young people about leadership and social and cultural issues; as an adviser she was engaged with broadening U.S. foreign exchange initiatives. In addition, she spoke about being a role model and her dedication to Special Olympics International (she serves on its board), among other topics.
Skating, said Kwan, taught her lessons that she also found useful in her life since retiring from the sport.
“I learned hard work,” she explained. “I knew it wasn’t as simple as signing up and going to the Olympics; I knew you had to put in the hours. I knew that sometimes you fall and sometimes you fall in front of millions of people, and you have to pick yourself up and persevere.” Those life lessons “came in handy” for her, she said, when she decided to go to graduate school, which she described as “one of the scariest things” she’s ever done, because at age 28 she was older than many of her graduate school peers.
“They were at school and in the library while I was on the ice,” said Kwan, who earned her B.A. in international relations at the University of Denver in 2008 and her M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2011. “I was playing catch up.” But, she told her audience, she had confidence in the work ethic she had cultivated throughout her journey to becoming a championship skater. She completed her degrees while working for the U.S. state department.
Kwan said one of her favorite parts of her government service was fostering sports diplomacy, which she described punningly as “using sports to break the ice.”
“Despite differences of race, gender, sex … all of these differences are put aside when you are talking sports,” she said, explaining that kids who might otherwise not pay attention are transfixed when they are listening to a celebrity or famous athlete.
Her work with Special Olympics is also close to her heart, the skater told her audience. She began volunteering for Special Olympics in her youth, and says the organization is “part of my family.” She praised its efforts bring to health care to people with intellectual disabilities through its Healthy Athletes initiative, and for providing them with a large community of friends. She decried the Trump administration’s recent proposal to slash $18 million in federal funding for the organization and hailed the efforts of athletes, their family members, and others who led a successful campaign encouraging members of Congress to stop the cuts. Said Kwan, “Special Olympics helps six million people with intellectual disabilities and their families. So many more people are wanting to be involved and be welcomed and have a chance to play and grow.”
Asked by Lui to share one of her most memorable honors, Kwan spoke of her 2002 Olympic performance, when — wearing a gold costume and skating to the song “Fields of Gold” — she had her heart set on winning a gold medal, but instead was awarded a bronze. However, skating in an exhibition the following day, she says, was “the most beautiful thing,” despite her unfulfilled dream.
“I skated around and I had emotional tears going into the triple lutz and I could barely see,” she remembered. “It was just joy/beauty — everything woven into one. I knew my place. I knew it wasn’t about winning the gold but about doing what I loved every day.”
After her conversation with Lui, Kwan took questions from members of the audience. Asked about newer required skating elements in competitions, Kwan jokingly suggested that the question instead be posed to another member of her audience: Yale first-year student Nathan Chen, who in March won a gold medal at the World Figure Skating Championships. Kwan noted that since she retired some 15 years ago, she is not up-to-date on rules of judging. Nevertheless, she said, she can’t imagine performing the quadruple jumps and quadruple lutzes being done by more contemporary figure skaters.
“I applaud skaters who can bring artistry and musicality and athleticism and do all these quadruple jumps — and also go to Yale,” she said, smiling at Chen.
Kwan served as an outreach coordinator for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and says she may next work on another presidential campaign. She said she doubted a career in political office is in her own future, adding that she prefers to be “behind the scenes” in her political work.
The skating champion concluded her talk by sharing a message she sent to Chen upon learning that he traverses the Yale campus on a skateboard. She told him: “Be careful! You are the future of U.S. figure skating!” The audience responded with hearty applause.