Here's What Really Happened To Michelle Kwan

In February 1998, all eyes were on two skaters at the Nagano Olympic Games: Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan. While 15-year-old Lipinski was an energetic and exciting skater to watch, Kwan entered the Games as the favorite for the gold medal. In the end, Lipinski went home with the top honor, and Kwan earned the silver. Despite that loss, Kwan remains one of the most successful and decorated figure skaters in the history of the sport, having won nearly every honor possible except for that Olympic gold (via Britannica).

There's a whole lot more to Kwan than just figure skating, however, despite the massive influence the sport has had on her life. Following her exit from skating in 2006, Kwan leapt into an academic career in international studies that precipitated a professional career in diplomacy. She's worked on multiple presidential campaigns, and, in December 2021, President Biden nominated her to be the U.S. Ambassador to Belize.

Kwan's personal life has also been full of ups, downs, and surprises. Her marriage ended dramatically in 2017, and, in January 2022, she announced the birth of her first child. Keep reading to learn what Michelle Kwan has been up to since the Olympics.

Michelle Kwan was favored for gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games

The women's figure skating competition at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games was fierce. Both 15-year-old Tara Lipinski and 18-year-old Michelle Kwan were favored for the gold medal, with many assuming the older and more mature Kwan would edge out her energetic rival. However, both women performed their routines nearly flawlessly, and Lipinski won the medal, especially since her routine was technically more difficult. 

The news surprised many, especially as Kwan had just enjoyed an incredibly successful run at that year's National Championships, where she took home the top honor and earned multiple perfect 6.0 scores. But, while surprise might have been the initial feeling, in later years, some understood the upset in a new way after reflection. As The Washington Post reporter and longtime figure skating fan Robert Samuels told Deadspin, Lipinski just had a different energy to her that night. As he put it, "We could see that actually she kind of did deserve to win. She was freer and better." That energy, according to Samuels, included her "zipping across the ice," as he described.

Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, even agreed. In a documentary about the skater (via Deadspin), Carroll reportedly told Kwan, "You skated very well but Tara Lipinski skated better. Tara deserved to win this Olympic gold medal."

She has a healthy perspective of her Olympic performance

Michelle Kwan enjoyed a truly prolific and successful career as a figure skater, but Olympic gold would elude her for the rest of her career. However, far from being something that Kwan looks back on with regret or negativity, she has a truly wonderful perspective on her time as a skater. As she told Forbes, she was able to enjoy a long skating career that even her once-rival Tara Lipinski didn't get to have (Lipinski retired from Olympic-level competition shortly after the 1998 Games).

Kwan admitted to Forbes that, as a child, she kept a Nagano Olympics sticker on her bed in the years leading up to the Games to motivate herself. Even though she didn't earn the top win that night, she learned a lot — and a silver medal is still an incredible achievement. "You dream of winning, right? You don't dream, of winning the silver medal. But it is still a dream come true where you work so hard, you train, you train, you train, because you went out there in the Olympics and skated your heart out!"

The figure skater was forced to end her Olympic career in 2006

In 2006, Michelle Kwan was gearing up to compete in her third Winter Olympics when an injury forced her to make the excruciating decision to drop out of the Games. The news was particularly painful for Kwan to announce, as she had only been added to the 2006 Olympic team mere weeks before. As People reported at the time, an older groin injury almost kept her out of the Games, and a second, newer injury forced Kwan to sideline herself completely.

In a tearful press conference, Kwan explained her decision to leave. She admitted, "Taking myself off the team is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. But it's the right decision." After being pressed for more, Kwan added that her pain extended to many parts of herself, saying, "It's physical pain that's keeping me from performing and skating. But it's also emotional pain as well" (via People).

And, just like that, the stunning career of a powerful figure skater came to an end. As Kwan pointed out, her own feelings about the Games were part of the reason she knew competing in 2006 wasn't for her. She said, "I respect the Olympics too much to compete and I don't feel I can be at my best" (via CBS News).

Later that year, she enrolled in classes at the University of Denver and began a political career

After withdrawing from the 2006 Olympic Games, Michelle Kwan found herself at a crossroads and decided to do something about it. She enrolled in classes at the University of Denver that year, majoring in international studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and minoring in political science.

The decision revealed a different, political side of Kwan that many might not have suspected. Personally, enrolling at the university provided Kwan with her first in-person school experience since middle school. As she told the University of Denver Magazine, joining students in person, for her, was revelatory. She explained, "From seventh grade on I had tutors while I was training and competing, and it was a big transition to go from full-time skating to full-time student."

Earning her degree in international studies changed the trajectory of Kwan's life completely. While still in school, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Kwan the first-ever U.S. Public Diplomacy Envoy, which allowed the former skater to travel around the world and promote multiculturalism with the youth she met along the way (per U.S. Figure Skating). As Kwan revealed, she soon found a new life path. "I discovered that diplomacy — finding common ground, helping people and countries come together — was a real interest for me," she said.

In 2010, the former skating champ began studying at Tufts University

Michelle Kwan's academic journey didn't end with her 2009 graduation from the University of Denver. In 2010, she was accepted to a graduate-level program at Tufts University, where she began studying at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked if Kwan would continue her role with the department while in graduate school, and Kwan was only too happy to accept.

After graduating in 2011, Kwan moved to Washington, D.C., and took a job as an adviser at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She enjoyed the job tremendously, telling U.S. Figure Skating, "It was exciting to be in a position to develop innovative policy for public engagement to enhance public affairs on key priorities across the department." The role also connected Kwan with Hillary Clinton for the first time, as the former skater also became an adviser to Clinton's U.S.-China Women's Leadership Exchange and Dialogue program.

The two women would later reconnect in a historical way — one that would, ultimately, make Kwan very proud.

Michelle Kwan got married in 2013

The years that followed Michelle Kwan's graduation from Tufts University were jampacked with both personal and professional life events. In 2013, she married Clay Pell, a politician from Arizona who had worked at the U.S. Department of Education. Pell proposed to Kwan in Rhode Island, and she was thrilled. She told People at the time, "It was a simple decision and it made sense, that's what's so exciting to me. We are working together as a team, like in [pair skating]."

The pair married the following year, with Kwan admitting she cried happy tears throughout the day. Pell told People, "As she was walking into the church, I could feel her." Things between the two seemed perfect, which made Pell's 2017 announcement that the two were divorcing very surprising — even to Kwan herself, who reportedly found out about the divorce on Twitter, like everyone else did.

Pell filed for divorce in March 2017 without, apparently, consulting Kwan at all, issuing this announcement: "It is with deep regret that I share that Michelle and my marriage is coming to an end. This is a sad and difficult turn of events for our family. I love Michelle, and wish her the very best as her life takes her in a new direction." In the years that followed, Pell married his high school girlfriend, while Kwan kept her personal life out of the media entirely (via The U.S. Sun).

In 2016, she joined Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign

Despite that personal setback, Michelle Kwan kept herself focused. In 2016, she joined Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign as a surrogate outreach coordinator. As reported by NBC, her primary role was working with celebrity and politician endorsers, which meant Kwan spent a lot of time coordinating with managers and agents to get support for Clinton's run.

Kwan told U.S. Figure Skating that working on the campaign was an honor, despite Clinton's eventual loss. As she explained, "I had the opportunity to work with her firsthand and wanted to jump in on the campaign trail to help get the first female president elected." Kwan also cited a speech Clinton made about why she chose to run as inspiration for her own political future, saying, "I found that very powerful."

As The Florida Times-Union reported, Kwan spent time on the campaign trail visiting college campuses, speaking about Clinton's plans to make a college education easier to afford. While her candidate ultimately didn't win, Kwan clearly gained invaluable experience.

The former Olympian took a step back after the 2016 presidential election

Michelle Kwan was likely disappointed by Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016, but, true to form, she took what could have been an upsetting moment and turned it into an opportunity to recenter and focus on herself. As she told Forbes, following November 2016, she took time off to relax and reconnect with herself before returning to work.

Kwan soon became involved with a handful of non-profit organizations, including the Special Olympics and the Women's Sports Federation. She admitted to the publication that, while she enjoyed those roles, she found herself mulling future opportunities, noting that she definitely planned to work again in politics, as many of her colleagues from the campaign trail already had new jobs in Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, Kwan became involved with another presidential campaign, working as a surrogate for Joe Biden in 2020 (per U.S. Figure Skating).

In 2021, Michelle Kwan was named U.S. Ambassador to Belize

Michelle Kwan's decision to work on Joe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign paid off for her in a major way. Not only did her candidate of choice soundly win the election, he nominated her for a major role. In December 2021, President Biden revealed he had nominated Kwan as the brand-new U.S. Ambassador to Belize. Kwan tweeted her feelings about the nomination, writing, "I am honored to be nominated by President Biden to serve as ambassador to Belize, and if confirmed, I will be very proud to serve my country."

At the time, People reported that Kwan was serving as treasurer and board member for the Special Olympics. However, she stated to The Washington Post that she hoped to be confirmed for the role, telling the publication, "Belize is full of incredible history and culture, and has been a tremendous partner to the United States." Kwan said she hoped to work closely with the government in Belize to address issues related to migration, the economy, and the pandemic.

The former figure skater welcomed a daughter in January 2022

In January 2022, Michelle Kwan surprised many by revealing she had become a mother for the first time at the age of 41. Kwan had never told anyone publicly that she was expecting a baby or trying to become pregnant, but she explained that her own private nature was part of the reason why. As Kwan wrote on Instagram, "As people closest to me know, I'm always full of surprises and tend to keep my personal life private. And, I've wanted to share this happy news for many months but each milestone seemed to be exciting and daunting at the same time."

Kwan also admitted that, like many women, she struggled to become pregnant and to deliver her child. At the conclusion of her post, Kwan noted that she was rooting for any woman experiencing infertility struggles, writing, "I want to send my best to all the mom[s] out there ... And, I wish anyone trying to conceive in any which way (ivf, iui, surrogacy, adoption and naturally) all the success and love." While Kwan didn't share much about her own journey to parenthood, she shared just enough to show her excitement while demonstrating profound empathy for other women who have struggled to conceive in any way.