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Michelle Kwan is a world-renowned figure skater who has redefined what it means to be a champion. Her grace and determination are brighter than any medal and she inspires young people everywhere to be true to themselves.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Gina Kaufmann and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Joy Smith. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe were our executive producers. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
Michelle Kwan had just turned 13 when she skated onto the ice in San Antonio, Texas for the Olympic qualifying competition. More than 25,000 spectators were gathered at the Alamodome to see what the fuss was about. Wearing a pink skating dress with a matching scrunchie, young Michelle entered the rink with a big, already triumphant grin. She struck a powerful pose and waited for her music cue.
As soon as the first chords kicked in, Michelle leapt, glided and spun, stunning the crowd with her incredible moves and smooth landings. She looked like a sparkling bird, floating through the air and nailing six triple jumps!
After she finished her routine, the crowd erupted into cheers. Some of the audience was so moved, they threw roses onto the ice. The near-perfect scores rolled in, and Michelle became the youngest figure skater in the U.S. Olympic Festival’s history to win the ladies’ singles gold medal.
She beamed with pride, imagining her life on the ice unfolding in front of her. But could Michelle bring the same radiance to this sport year after year, as the pressure to win only grew? Or was winning more about the strength to carry on?
I’m Joy Smith. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, MICHELLE KWAN — the world-renowned figure skater who redefined what it means to be a champion.
Michelle Wingshan Kwan was born in 1980, in Torrance, California, where her parents – immigrants from Hong Kong – ran a Chinese restaurant.
As the youngest of three siblings, Michelle was always trying to keep up with the big kids. Her brother Ron played ice hockey. Her sister Karen was into figure skating. Whenever Michelle tagged along to one of their practices, she stood on the sidelines, holding her mom’s hand, wishing she could be out there, too. By the time she was five, she’d convinced her parents to let her try.
From the beginning, what Michelle loved most was the feeling of stepping onto a wide open ice rink. It felt like pure freedom, having all that space to herself: to move, to try new things, and to see what her body could do.
While watching the Olympics on TV, at age seven, Michelle envisioned herself twirling and swirling around the ice rink too. She knew she could do it. In fact, she stood up and announced to her family that one day she would skate in the Olympics.
Soon, Michelle started waking up at 4 in the morning to practice skating before school. She was so dedicated, she slept in her ice skates so she could pop out of bed, ready to go.
Then, when she was 10, Michelle and her sister got invited to train at an elite skating school. It was far away from their home and the girls would have to change their lives completely. Their parents said if Michelle and Karen were ready to make that kind of commitment, the family would get on board. The sisters both said yes.
At that higher level of figure-skating, there was a lot of attention to how girls looked, which Michelle found confusing. She was used to wearing hand-me-down skating dresses and focusing on discipline and form, not fashion.
Once, someone Michelle admired told her she might get better scores if she wore more makeup. Michelle was shocked, but she didn’t reach for the mascara. Instead, she decided right then and there to be herself, no matter what. Michelle’s opinion of herself mattered more than any judge’s score.
When Michelle was 12, she made another big decision. She asked her coach if she could compete with the seniors, against the most promising figure-skaters in the country, instead of the juniors, with other kids. Michelle’s coach said no; he didn’t think she was ready. But Michelle was adamant. She signed up to skate in the seniors, and she surprised everyone by ranking 6th in the nation! She landed more triple jumps in the competition than any of the five women who placed ahead of her.
Michelle was excited by the chance to challenge herself and leap over other people’s expectations. That’s how she got to the Alamodome at age 13 with a smile already on her face. She looked at each chance on the ice as a new moment to experience fully and to shine. And she kept daring herself to leap higher and add new elements to her routines. She wanted to try it all.
For the next few years, Michelle kept on capturing titles and getting accolades, including her first world championship title in figure-skating.
Then, when she was 17, she actually made her childhood dream come true! She got to skate in the Olympics in Nagano, Japan. She felt a chill on her skin as she found her place on the ice, but she stood up straight, lifted her chin, and took a slow, deep breath to center herself. This was the moment she’d been waiting for since she was seven. Her Olympic free-skate. And She was favored to win the gold.
A hush fell over the crowd. They’d been waiting for this moment, too.
Michelle skated exquisitely that day, holding her body with unwavering grace. She began by taking delicate steps backwards on the tips of her blades, before building up to astonishing twists in mid-air, executed with poise and precision. Her routine was anything but easy. But she made it look effortless.
Michelle took home the silver in the Nagano Games that year. Not the gold.
When reporters asked how it felt to lose, Michelle objected. She hadn’t lost anything. She’d won the silver. She’d made it to the Olympics, fulfilling a lifelong dream. She had no regrets about her performance.
And yet, she wondered, could she win the gold? Setting her sights on the next Olympics, she wanted to make sure she was still in it for the right reasons. Wanting the gold that got away wasn’t enough to keep her skating; she needed her heart to be in it, day in and day out, or no medal would be worth the grueling training. When Michelle did return to the Olympics, in 2002, her fans were thrilled. They couldn’t wait to watch her skate in Salt Lake City.
She was mesmerizing to watch. Her footwork was astounding, as she lifted into the air in axels and lutzes. But then, about halfway through her complicated routine, Michelle stepped into a Triple Flip, lost her balance, and then fell. Hard. The crowd gasped, unsure what would happen next.
What happened was: Michelle kept skating. Not just skating, but smiling. She ended her performance with a dazzling spin. Then, she stomped on the ice and threw her head back, her heart lifted toward the ceiling, her arms falling to her sides in a courageous final pose. She looked like a triumphant warrior.
When Michelle came off the ice, her dad sat beside her on the bench. Michelle knew she wouldn’t take home the gold. More importantly though, she took her dad’s hand and said, “I didn’t give up.”
She was heartbroken, but also proud of how she made the best of it.
Michelle performed one more time at the 2002 Olympics in an unforgettable display of passion and grace, set to the song Fields of Gold. No longer competing for that gold medal, Michelle skated for joy and joy alone – and it showed. Her arms and legs seemed to stretch longer than ever before. Her strides were lyrical. She grinned, like she was having the time of her life. Tears of gratitude streamed down her cheeks.
And when she finished, fans threw stuffed animals and flowers onto the rink for the skater they still considered the best in the world.
Michelle won nine U.S. championships, five world titles, and two Olympic medals. But her impact is far greater than any of these shiny awards. After retiring from competitive skating, she became an ambassador for the Special Olympics, and she now serves as a U.S. ambassador, helping to bring harmony to international relations.
Michelle’s commitment to her dreams continues to evolve and inspire others. Because she knows that the biggest challenge sometimes is getting back up and continuing with all your heart.
That’s what it means to be a rebel.