Kwan puts skating career on ice

Figure skater Michelle Kwan, who has retired from the sport and is pursuing a postgraduate degree at Tufts, in Davis Square on Feb. 1. (Joanne Rathe/Globe staff) Figure skater Michelle Kwan, who has retired from the sport and is pursuing a postgraduate degree at Tufts, in Davis Square on Feb. 1.
By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 2, 2010

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SOMERVILLE - She will be walking through Davis Square at lunchtime, having dinner in the North End, or sitting courtside at a Celtics game and she’ll see the heads turning. That face, that smile. Is that her? Naww, couldn’t be.

“She’s from LA,’’ Michelle Kwan says, laughing. “Why would she be here?’’

Kwan has been in the vicinity since last summer, studying for a two-year master’s degree in law and diplomacy at Tufts’s Fletcher School. The most decorated figure skater in American history (two Olympic medals, five world titles, nine national championships) now totes a backpack crammed with books, a computer and a Kindle.

“My friends here know me as Michelle the Student,’’ she says.

Kwan, who’ll turn 30 in July, hasn’t retired from skating, and there were times last year when she pondered going for an unprecedented fifth Winter Olympics. But once the Tufts acceptance letter arrived, she knew that she was at a crossroads.

“It was, ‘OK, now I really have to make a decision,’ ’’ she says. “It didn’t feel like it was a hard choice, but it was the right one for me at this time. Grad school, new experience, everything that I’ve always wanted. It’s a new path.’’

When Kwan was growing up, her father Danny would lecture her about the Train Ride of Life, with its sequential stops. The question always was: Can you wait? Skating could not wait; she had to compete when she was in her prime. At 25, education could not wait. So after the 2006 Winter Games, she enrolled at the University of Denver to finish up the undergraduate work she’d started at UCLA in 1999.

“The 10-year plan,’’ she called it.

Now it’s time for the next station on the train ride: advanced study that could lead to a PhD and a career in diplomacy or politics.

“I love it,’’ Kwan says. “I thought I would never find something that I was as passionate about as figure skating.’’

Up for a challenge
Fletcher, which she describes as a “small UN’’ because of its enrollment of students from more than 70 countries, is a natural setting for a woman who has been a globetrotter since she was 13 and who has served as an envoy for the State Department since 2006.

“Every time I go to school, I find myself smiling,’’ she says, “because I couldn’t be in a better place than right here.’’

Most of the time she’s in the library, dealing with a reading list that’s considerably more complex than it was in college so that she can hold her own in class.

“I’m surrounded by genius-like people,’’ says Kwan, who is taking four courses and also being tutored in Mandarin.

She always has performed better when she feels that she’s in over her head, which is why she jumped into the ranks of senior skaters when she was only 12.

“I knew exactly what I was doing,’’ she says. “I knew I had to step up my game.That was the way I pushed myself. I’d rather be sixth in seniors than first in juniors. I told myself, you’re going to play with the grownups now. But I knew that I wanted to be there.’’

Kwan was the youngest skater at the 1993 national championships, where she finished sixth.

“I can just remember having the time of my life being next to Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding,’’ she says.

That autumn in San Antonio, she won the US Olympic festival before more than 25,000 people inside the Alamodome, the largest crowd ever to watch figure skating on the planet.

The next winter in Detroit, Kwan was backstage when Kerrigan was assaulted by a thug linked to Harding and ended up going to Lillehammer as the alternate, ready to take the ice if Kerrigan wasn’t fit or if Harding was thrown off the team.

“I was 13, just happy to be there,’’ she says. “I knew it wasn’t my time. Even if I had competed, I wouldn’t have medaled.’’

Her time was 1998, when she went to Nagano as the co-favorite after reclaiming her US crown from world champion Tara Lipinski. After Lipinski outpointed her for the gold medal, Kwan was disappointed but content.

“I couldn’t have prepared myself more,’’ she says. “I couldn’t have thought about skating more. I didn’t even make a mistake.

“That was the turning point in my skating career. Whatever happens, happens. Would I have been different if I’d won the gold medal? Maybe.’’

But chasing the one prize she missed isn’t why Kwan continued on for another quadrennium and then another, she insists.

“It was always just loving to skate,’’ she says. “It was never about proving myself.’’

‘The hardest decision’
Her legacy was secure by the time she turned up in Turin in 2006 as a decided dark horse at 25. She had missed the world podium in Moscow the year before and had to withdraw from nationals after eight years as champion because of hip and groin injuries.

When the selectors named her to the Olympic team, Kwan vowed that she wouldn’t compete unless she was fully fit. After a rough first practice the day after the opening ceremonies, she knew that she couldn’t be.

“I had made a promise to myself that if I wasn’t 100 percent that I really didn’t deserve to be there,’’ she says. “The Olympics is way bigger than that. It’s not about me wanting to win.’’

Pulling out was “probably the hardest decision of my life,’’ Kwan says, but she quickly moved on, enrolling at Denver that fall. What she quickly discovered, to her amusement, was that she could hide in plain sight.

“In biology class, I was sitting in the front with two of my girlfriends and the professor was taking roll call. ‘Michelle,’ she said. ‘Like Michelle Kwan, the skater.’ ’’

By last winter, back home in Los Angeles with diploma in hand, Kwan became a skater again. She had nine months before graduate school would start, so she figured that it might be fun to get back into skating shape.

“It was easy to fall back into the routine,’’ she says. “Work out on the ice, go to the gym and work with my trainer, get some physical therapy.’’

Kwan took it seriously enough that she choreographed a short program to the new scoring system, which is geared more to points than polish.

“You have to work with the system, not against it,’’ she says. “That’s how much I thought about competing.’’

At last year’s nationals in Cleveland, that was the buzz: Michelle is jumping again.

“Fans are always excited,’’ Kwan says. “We miss you, they say. Come back. Even now it’s, where are you, why aren’t you performing?’’

Kwan did go to Seoul last summer to do an exhibition with world champion Kim Yu Na, but once she enrolled at Fletcher, she was in full backpack mode.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it,’’ she says. “It’s OK to be interested in a lot of things, but make your choices.’’

The skater with the most glittering trophy case is a spectator now, and when she watched last month’s national championships on TV, Kwan was pulling for Sasha Cohen, her two-time Olympic teammate who was making a long shot comeback at 25.

“I was really rooting for her because I know how much hard work it is, how many challenges she had to overcome,’’ Kwan says. “That was a triumph in itself. Everybody applauded her for being there.’’

Cohen, who won the silver medal in Turin, didn’t make the team for Vancouver. America’s new women’s champion, the sixth in as many years, is Rachael Flatt, a 17-year-old high school senior who was an infant when Kwan made her senior debut and who skates by the numbers better than anyone.

“Solid, that’s all I could say,’’ says Kwan. “Wow, talk about consistent. I don’t know what it is she’s doing, but she’s doing something good.’’

For a decade Kwan did what she did better than anybody else, and since she stopped competing, she has allowed herself to reminisce.

“I’ll check out my performances on YouTube and it really brings back emotions,’’ she says. “That was me? That’s so cool.’’

Kwan’s skating got her invited to the White House for a 2006 state luncheon, where she sat at the head table next to President George W. Bush and chatted in Mandarin with Chinese president Hu Jintao. “It was the most interesting few hours of my life,’’ she says.

That autumn, Condoleezza Rice named Kwan as the State Department’s first public diplomacy envoy. Since then she has traveled to Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, China, and, most recently, South Korea chatting with people her age and younger about whatever interests them about her and her country.

Her story is an American tale, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who becomes the world’s ice queen, then evolves into an international scholar. What Kwan enjoys now is what she never had on the ice: The luxury of blending in. When she sat behind the visitors’ bench in the Garden last Sunday, Kwan was tempted to wear a Lakers hat to support her hometown team. “But I didn’t want to get booted,’’ she says.

Nine years ago, when she won her fifth national title on Causeway Street, Kwan’s was the most famous face in town. This week when she dropped by the Diesel Cafe on Elm Street for a salad and a latte, she was just another hungry grad student.

“Your name?’’ the waitress asked her dining companion after taking their order. “And her name?’’

John Powers can be reached at