Once tasked with nailing triple Lutzes and Salchows, Michelle Kwan may soon be Rhode Island's first lady. The story behind her political rise (and that infamous Prius).
“Kwan for President,” reads the button, its size extra large and its design dull, with a white background and black type letters that seem to leap off the shirt of Dell Pellegrini. She glances down at the button when I mention it.
“Oh, this is from 2005,” says Dell, a self-described Michelle Kwan “uber-fan” who lives in Yonkers. “Some fans had them printed for nationals.”
Pelligrini is just one of Kwan’s many “MKFers,” what the skater calls those who participate in the Michelle Kwan Forum. This chat board has 85,000 posts in the “About Michelle” thread alone and oozes the kind of awe and praise that harkens back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Kwan was something of a national treasure.
It’s been almost a decade since Kwan won her last of a record nine U.S. Figure Skating titles. She is arguably one of the most successful skaters of all time: silver at the Olympics in 1998, bronze in Salt Lake in 2002, five World Championship golds and countless international medals. Kwan was a household name when figure skating was more than a once-every-four-years sport for Americans, wearing Vera Wang costumes on the ice and appearing on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
But it was at her two Olympics that Kwan couldn’t win what many thought she deserved: the coveted gold medal. In Nagano it was 15-year-old Tara Lipinski with her ‘90s bangs and sparkly blue dress who swooped in. Four years later American teenager Sarah Hughes shocked the sporting world with her gold at 16. Kwan was left dazed and without figure skating’s biggest prize.
Now eight years removed from competitive skating, Kwan has glided away from the sport and into another world altogether: that of politics. In the fall of 2006, the same year she withdrew from what was to be her last Olympics due to injury, she was appointed the country’s first-ever Public Diplomacy Envoy after expressing interest in the political realm at a dinner with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the position, Kwan travels the world for the State Department, engaging in such activities as speaking to school groups in Russia and meeting with sports ministers in Singapore. In 2012, she took a full-time job with the State Department as a senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs.
But for all the dabbles in fashion or business ventures away from the sport, no skater has done what Kwan is doing, her under-the-radar competitive drive now boosted by the pulse of D.C., not a panel of pencil-holding rink-side judges.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a top figure skater make a transition like this so seamlessly, so quickly,” says Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist who has covered Kwan for 20 years. “From 2006 to now she has gone from one of the greatest champions in her sport to finishing her college degree, getting her master’s, getting married and all the while working at the State Department.”
Kwan earned her degree in International Studies at the University of Denver in 2008, then got her master’s at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2011. But the getting married part might be the most important: In January 2013, Kwan wed Clay Pell, the grandson of legendary Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, for whom Pell Grants are named after.
A year after their wedding day, 32-year-old Pell and 33-year-old Kwan announced side-by-side that he would be running for governor of Rhode Island in the Democratic primary. Headlines read in various forms of “Kwan’s Husband to Run for Governor,” her household name mega firepower for team Pell. The figure skater that could never win an Olympic gold was now launching herself into a long-shot political race alongside her husband, who has never held public office and is up against two popular Democrats in the state. Cue the dramatic music.