There Goes My Hero: Michelle Kwan, Queen of American Figure Skating

I am proud to see Asian and Asian American athletes excel. Once again, Chinese tennis player Li Na is in a major tennis final. Li lost to Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final last year. Tomorrow, she will face Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final. Li is 29 years old.

Chinese American Michelle Kwan is my figure skating queen. I fell in love with figure skating during the 1988 Calgary Olympics, when American Brian Boitano won the gold medal and American (and now doctor) Debi Thomas won the silver medal. I had some vague notion of learning how to ice skate, but the rink was far, so I stuck with dabbling in gymnastics and ballet.

Michelle burst onto the figure skating scene in the middle of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding insanity. I liked her and identified with her since she was similar to me in many ways. She earned a second place finish at nationals, but the U.S. made her the alternate for the Olympics; they selected Nancy since she had been sidelined by the assault during nationals.

In 1998, Michelle “won the silver”; the gold medal went to fellow American Tara Lipinksi due to her triple-triple combinations. Tara knew that she couldn’t beat Michelle on artistry, so she had to go after an athletic edge, and the judges gave it to her.

Cut to 2002, Michelle is at the Olympics without her coach. She falls during her long program and ends up with the bronze; American Sarah Hughes wins gold. For the exhibition, Michelle skates to Eva Cassidy’s devastating “Fields of Gold” and bursts into tears. It never fails to move me.

Scott Hamilton’s remarks at the end say it all. Indeed, “success isn’t always measured by a gold medal.” Unlike Tara and Sarah, Michelle had a decade-long career of unprecedented accomplishments (five world championships, nine U.S. championships) and a massive international following. These fans will always remember her as a champion and an artist; the programs she created will live on in memory and in history.

Michelle is close with Yuna Kim, the Korean figure skater who won the Olympic gold medal in Toronto. Michelle is Kim’s idol: Yuna began skating after seeing Michelle at the 1998 Olympics. Michelle currently trains at the East West Palace, a rink owned by Michelle that is very close to where I grew up in southern California.


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