First Gen Icon: Michelle Kwan

First Gen Icon - Michelle Kwan

Michelle Kwan - First Gen Icon, Olympian Figure Skater, Mentor

Contributed by Madison Gleissner, Newsletter Editor

Michelle Kwan' Early Life

Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in US history, was born in California to Hong Kong immigrant parents in 1980. Inspired by her brother who played ice hockey, Michelle began figure skating at the age of 5 years old.  Michelle won her first competition only one year later.

Throughout the course of her early life Michelle Kwan celebrated a multitude of achievements. At 13, she competed in the 1994 World Championships, finishing eighth and earning herself an alternate spot in the 1994 Olympics.  She seized five world titles between the years of 1996 and 2003, and won the Silver medal in the 1998 Olympic Games despite it being widely anticipated that she would take the Gold. Michelle’s career came to a halt in 2006 when she suffered a severe strain. The injury caused Michelle to withdraw from the Olympic Games and ultimately retire from her career as a professional figure skater. 

Michelle saw her unexpected professional retirement as an opportunity to continue her educational goals. She returned to school and became the first in her family to earn an undergraduate degree. Michelle received a Bachelors of Science degree in International Studies and a Masters in International relations. In 2006 Kwan was named America’s first Public Diplomacy Envoy and senior adviser at the US Department of State, working with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs. In 2010 Michelle was chosen by President Obama to be the President’s council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and joined the Board of Directors of Special Olympics International in the same year.

Mentoring Angela Wang

Like Michelle Kwan, Angela Wang first met the ice at the age of 5.  It was 2002 and the Olympic Games were in Angela’s hometown of Salt Lake City.  Angela watched Michelle Kwan take home the Bronze medal that season and was inspired to take up the sport.  Kwan immediately became someone to look up to for Wang: “She’s… such an incredible role model, not just in skating but also in life in general.”  

Angela recalls buying a copy of Michelle’s autobiography as a child and freezing up upon having the chance to meet Michelle Kwan in person.  She says, “I… was so scared to ask her for her autograph. I had to have my mom go up and ask for me.” 

Given the incredible role that Kwan played in Angela’s life from afar, one can imagine the excitement that Angela felt when Michelle offered to mentor and do a program for her.  Wang recalls, “Outside of just the choreography, Michelle and I worked a lot on just skating, like how to approach a train session, her mindset throughout the years and lessons she learned.  I… had the opportunity to pick her brain on all of her experiences… which was incredible.”

Kwan’s influence doesn’t stop with Angela Wang.  Many Olympian figure skaters have cited Michelle Kwan as their inspiration and role model, in and off of the ice.  NBC News reports that although U.S. Figure Skating does not record data on ethnicity, the number of Asian-American figure skaters to join the sport has significantly increased since Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi came into the public eye in the early 1990’s.  Olympics expert Philip Hersh says of Michelle Kwan, “On a list of 10 most influential skaters, she would be numbers one through eight.” He goes to attribute her influence not only to the groundbreaking figure skating skills Michelle displayed, but to her sportsmanship, grace in dealing with disappointment, and the work she has done since retiring from figure skating.

As for advice that Michelle Kwan has for young people today?  In an interview with Forbes, Michelle Kwan asks her fans to “dream big, work hard, have fun and follow their passion.  It’s simple to say never give up, but learn from your mistakes to keep growing.”

Works Cited

“Angela Wang's Mentorship with Michelle Kwan Is a Young Girl's Dream Come True.” U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone,

Clash, Jim. “Michelle Kwan On Her Involvement With The Democratic Party, Sasha Cohen And Missing Olympic Gold.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Mar. 2017,

Connolly, Bess. “Celebrated U.S. Figure Skater Michelle Kwan to Be Honored as Chubb Fellow.” YaleNews, 26 Mar. 2019,

“Michelle Kwan.” Dot Org,

“Michelle Kwan.”, A&E Networks Television, 10 Apr. 2019,

“Stars of U.S. Figure Skating Team Find Strength in Past Olympians.”, NBCUniversal News Group,