Wed, Apr 27, 2011
Michelle Kwan: New Woman in Washington
She's not about to skate on her past success. This former Olympian turns her attention to diplomacy and Capitol Hill.
Hillary Clinton, have you heard? Michelle Kwan is looking for a job.
You might want to consider her, Madame Secretary. The two-time Olympian, who earns her master’s degree in international affairs in May from Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Mass., sports a resume that spins circles (and maybe jumps a few triple axels) around her fellow applicants.
First, there’s the whole national hero thing. Her decade-long reign (1995–2005) as the planet’s preeminent female figure skater saw Kwan earn five world championships and nine U.S. national championships, plus bronze and silver medals in the 1998 and 2002 Olympic Games.
Which could certainly break the ice at a meeting with a testy foreign dignitary.
Then there’s her globe-trotting work as an unpaid diplomatic envoy under two presidents from opposing teams—Barack Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush—making her the rarest of bipartisan players. Since 2006, Kwan has toured countries such as Singapore, Russia, Argentina and South Korea to share her experiences and philosophies about cultivating endurance, fitness and strength—emotional and physical—in kids of all ages.
As the child of two Chinese immigrants who started a new life in California, Kwan is a one-woman PR machine for the American dream. Plus, she single-handedly dispels the myth that everyone in the U.S. lounges on the beach all day à la “Baywatch”—or snarfs down fast food while sitting on the sofa watching old reruns of it on TV.
Another resume highlight: She’s accustomed to hobnobbing with foreign heads of state—China’s President Hu Jintao comes to mind—while attending White House state dinners. (“I’ve been to two,” she tells Flyer modestly; the latest was held Jan. 19, breathlessly covered in The Washington Post, which trumpeted the figure-flaunting “bandage” dress she wore that night with couture aplomb.)
Finally, there’s her passport, which has been rubber-stamped with a dizzying array of destinations.
Not that Kwan, 30, is any stranger to Washington, or needs help making connections here. Her envoy work is run through Clinton’s U.S. Department of State, after all. “I’m in Washington a lot,” she says. “And all of my Fletcher School friends have wound up working at the CIA, World Bank, State … ” But after so many years as a famous face, she isn’t so different from many graduating students, wondering what comes next in terms of a career.
“Everyone asked why I don’t coach—I own a rink in California—or maybe do sports commentating,” she says. “I love skating, but I think of my life as a book, and I’m ready for the next chapter. I want to have a career doing foreign service, maybe with the State Department. As you get older, you don’t have just one dream; you have many dreams. It also involves getting married one day, having kids”—at the moment, neither is in the works—“and achieving that balancing act.”
Still, it’s not like she’s sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. Two renowned organizations have already come calling: The Special Olympics (specialolympics.org) just added the famous skater to its board. And the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition (fitness.gov), or PCFSN, which aims to curb America’s alarming obesity epidemic, named Kwan to its distinguished roster, one that includes Super Bowl champ Drew Brees and tennis legend Billie Jean King.
Both groups plan to capitalize on Kwan’s athleticism, great looks and wholesome image to deliver their respective health messages, as well as to tap her fitness expertise.
Kwan has enjoyed a relationship for years with the Special Olympics—“a truly incredible organization,” she says—whose world headquarters are on 19th Street in Northwest Washington. The summer World Games are being held in Athens, Greece—home of the original Olympics—in June.
“Michelle has been an extraordinary supporter of Special Olympics around the globe,” Timothy P. Shriver, Ph.D, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics International, tells Flyer. “She’s conducted skating clinics with our Special Olympics athletes, appeared at special events and helps build acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities in every community she touches.”
The praise doesn’t stop there. Michelle Obama, who launched her initiative last year to help Americans focus on healthy eating and fitness, tapped Kwan for her new health Council, too.
“[Kwan’s] ability to connect with people of all ages has helped us empower Americans about the importance of living an active, healthy lifestyle,” says Shellie Pfohl, executive director of PCFSN.
Which means life is pretty busy these days for the figure skater, People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” alum, and cartoon character—yes, Kwan was immortalized on The Simpsons during Season 16, which, she claims, is the single achievement that truly impressed her little brother, who admitted she’d finally “made it” after the show aired.
But Kwan still dreams of serving her country using her new advanced degree.
She says there’s a big connection between skating and diplomacy. “Through my travels as a skater competing all over the world, I’ve had a chance to get to know people from different countries and experience their values and cultures.
By being appointed a diplomatic envoy [plus] my involvement with the Council and Special Olympics, I’ve been able to give back. I want to be a good citizen, a great athlete, a great student, a great sister and a great daughter. Those are things I hope for in my life—and to make a difference in people’s lives through public service. I want to be able to say I’ve made a difference.”
With so many friends and colleagues in D.C., Kwan feels right at home in the city, citing her favorite new restaurant: “Circa at Dupont (circacafes.com). I went there twice in the same week!” she says. She also loves Russia House Restaurant and Lounge (rus siahouselounge.com) and the Lincoln Memorial, “which is so tranquil in the evening,” and she longs to try out the winding running paths in Rock Creek Park.
As she prepares to head to Athens, Kwan also yearns to see more of the world. “I haven’t been to Africa yet,” she says. “I love traveling and meeting so many amazing people. As a skater, I might see a hotel room, a conference room, a rink. I was in Paris more than a few times, but for me, sightseeing always had to be done in a day: ‘Quick! Take a picture of Notre Dame!’ Then I’d run back to the hotel or fly back to training. Now, traveling with the State Department as an envoy, I actually get to know people in a culture. I enjoy immersing myself, trying their foods, meeting the students and discovering where the core of it all is.”