Walking the pink carpet, Michelle Kwan looked radiant. It was a night that celebrated female athletes and none shone brighter than Kwan, the nine-time U.S. Women’s Figure Skating Champion, five-time World Champion and two-time Olympic medalist. On Oct. 15, at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 28th Annual Salute to Women in Sports, she was honored not for her amazing medal count — an unprecedented 43 championships — but for her outstanding contributions to women’s sports.
“Skating has opened a lot of doors for me,” said Kwan, 27. Although she picks and chooses her appearances carefully these days, Kwan’s participation in the Salute to Women in Sports was a show of appreciation for what the foundation did for her before she became one of the most famous names in figure skating.
“I received a travel and training grant when I was 13 years old from the Women’s Sports Foundation,” she said. “You remember these things and you try to give back.”
Kwan has not competed since the 2005 World Figure Skating Championships, where she finished fourth. Granted a medical bye onto the U.S. team at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, she wound up withdrawing when her hip injury reoccurred. After appearing on the 2006 Champions on Ice tour (with no jumping) she began her first prolonged hiatus from the sport.
“Taking this year off from skating, I feel better than I have since 2002-03. I’m pain free,” she said. “[I enjoy] being able to take one thing at a time and see where life leads.”
Since turning 18, Kwan had taken classes on and off at UCLA, but for the past year she has immersed herself in college, studying political science and international studies at the University of Denver. She’s also been interacting with an extremely famous University of Denver alumna, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a former figure skater herself. Rice named Kwan America’s first Public Diplomacy Envoy. In this role, Kwan travels the world and meets with young people to speak about leadership and to engage them in dialogue on social and educational issues. She also works with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen P. Hughes.
“It’s a big learning experience,” said Kwan, who has traveled to China and Russia. “I’d been to Russia many times, but you don’t really get to experience everything when you’re competing. I went to the rink and the hotel and tried to do a little sight seeing. Now, I get to talk to the students and see where they’re living all over Russia. Not just Moscow. I went to Volgograd, St. Petersburg and other parts of the country.
“There are universal things that everybody shares,” she adds. “There might be misconceptions about Americans … There are underlying facts everybody shares — cherish your parents, education, health.”
Kwan described Rice as “brilliant, but she’s really a normal person. We were talking about skating. We were talking about University of Denver. We were kind of like girls at that moment.
“These athletes, they have their time when they’re focused. They come off and wear pretty dresses. When I get off the ice, I go to the movies, I do homework, I go to the library, I hang out with my friends. That’s how Secretary Rice is. She’s a normal person. She’s a brilliant person and she’s a very fun and sweet person — she’s all of that.”
Kwan is slowly getting her blades back under her, but no date has been set for a return to skating.
Other honorees at the Salute to Women in Sports were golfer Lorena Ochoa and softball player Monica Abbott as Sportswomen of the Year, individual and team. The Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.