Michelle Kwan Trades Skates for State Department Job | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Michelle Kwan Trades Skates for State Department Job

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Once an Olympian, now a diplomat.
Photo courtesy of the State Department
Once an Olympian, now a diplomat.

The 22nd Olympic Winter Games are on in Sochi, Russia. The games will include 98 events in seven sports, from skiing to bobsleigh, hockey to curling, and luge to skating.

And Michelle Kwan knows all about that last one.

She took home the silver medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics, and the bronze in 2002. Nowadays, with nine U.S. championships and five world championships under her belt, the 33-year-old California native resides in Washington, D.C., where she’s taken on a whole new gig.

“Everything is top secret and classified. [I] can’t tell you anything!” she says with a laugh.

Kwan is joking here. But for a lot of her colleagues, top-secret and classified is their M.O. Because since 2012, Michelle Kwan has been employed with the U.S. State Department.

“I work at the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, where we focus on a lot of exchanges, building mutual understanding,” she says. “We bring businesses, we bring athletes, we bring music. There’s a great exchange between countries, and it’s a great way to connect.”

Kwan says a lot of people think this new path is a total 180 for her, but as a figure skater, she traveled the world representing the United States for years. And even more so when, in 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice named Kwan America’s first “public-diplomacy envoy.” As such she got to travel the world, and connect with youth through sports.

“It was a great way to really break the ice,” Kwan says. “Talking about figure skating, and talking about the value of sports, the things that you learn. Like hard work, dedication, focus, discipline.”

That same year, Michelle Kwan decided to apply her own hard work, dedication, focus and discipline, and finally finish her college education.

“I had enrolled at UCLA in ’99 and was continuing to compete at the world level. But I had not completed my degree. I felt like I was on a ten-year — not “tenure” plan — but a ten-year plan,” she says. “So I finished and I didn’t anticipate getting my master’s degree, but I felt like I needed to continue to learn. And although I got my master’s degree at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, I still feel like I need to continue to learn, and that’s I guess my mission in life.”

Kwan says her job at the State Department has her learning new things every day, and visiting new places. And unlike her gigs as a champion figure skater, and as a public-diplomacy envoy, where she’d visit countries “mainly where there’s an ice rink,” these days “sometimes I go to visit countries that don’t have an ice rink.”

Kwan says she isn’t skating very much these days because her new job keeps her so busy. She says she misses it, and felt rather jarred in the transition from constantly skating to barely ever.

“I had prepared myself knowing that you can’t skate all your life,” she explains. “Doing a triple-lutz-double-toe combination, triple-triple combination, your body can only handle so much kind of pounding.

“But not knowing is kind of tough. Because for 20 years of my life I always knew what was ahead of me: I want to be the winner at the next skating competition. And when that all ended, in 2006, it was like a ‘whoa, now what?’ And really, it took some time but I’m really excited on this new path that I’m on.”

As she travels this new path, Kwan says she’s especially proud of the connections she’s built.

“I guess in some ways, when I was competing I was making connections, small connections, through the audience: 15,000 people watching, millions of people watching on television,” she says. “Being behind the scenes now, and developing innovative strategies and ways we can broaden our outreach — that’s something I’m very proud of.”

[Music: "Skating" by Habitiat from Holiday Charity Jingler ]

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