Ms. Kwan Goes to Washington

At 30, master's degree in hand, she moves further beyond skating

Michelle Kwan at State Dinner

Michelle Kwan arrives at January's White House State Dinner for the President of China (Evan Vucci / AP / December 16, 2013)

When Michelle Kwan was 16 and had just won the first of what would be five world figure skating titles, she began to wonder what her life would be like at age 30.

"I thought, 'Will I still be skating, still be training a long program every day?''' Kwan recalled.  "I always hoped and wished I would find another career path I was as interested in, committed to and determined to succeed in with goals like I set out in figure skating.''

She has the answer now.  At age 30, the greatest skater of her generation is almost completely removed from the sport and off to Washington, D.C. to try her hand at government work -- and possibly even politics -- with the master's degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University's Fletcher School she received May 22.

"I am very happy to be in the place I am,'' Kwan said Friday morning in a telephone conversation.  "It is where I hoped I would be.''

Kwan could not be specific about her immediate work plans, but don't be surprised to hear she has landed a job with one government agency or another not long after driving her Prius and some of her belongings from Boston to Washington in the middle of June.

She already is active in two State Department initiatives under two different administrations.   Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Kwan the first American Public Diplomacy Envoy in 2007.  Current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong named Kwan an ambassador to a new U.S.-China women's leadership exchange, Women-LEAD, this April.

Kwan's field of study at Fletcher was East Asia and Foreign Policy Analysis, and her master's thesis focused on how the Beijing Olympics became a vehicle for a form of international relations.  She learned Mandarin to fulfill the Fletcher language requirement and wants to keep studying it until she can speak it as well as she does China's other major language, Cantonese.

When we spoke Friday, Kwan was getting over jet lag from a week-long vacation in London, hunting online for an apartment in Washington and trying to decide whether it would be better to move all her furniture or to sell most of it and start fresh.  She was leaning toward moving only what would fit in the Prius.

Kwan said she debated between going on for a Ph.D. and finding a job.  She had to shake thoughts that at this age -- 31 in July -- the path should be clear.

"When I walked across the stage (at the Fletcher graduation), it was absolutely surreal that I had gotten there but just a beginning step to where I want to be and a reminder of how far I still have to go,'' she said.

 "It was also a bittersweet moment because you want to keep learning but at the same time, you want to gain experience.  I'm going to D.C. to have experience in the place where all the decisions are made.''

I asked if she could ever see herself making those decisions as a politician some day, and she answered "yes'' without hesitation.

"So when is your first run for office?''

 "Maybe that's what I'll do this summer,'' she added with a laugh.

Over the years while she was winning the five world titles, nine U.S. titles, two Olympic medals and the hearts of her country with her graciousness in victory or defeat, Kwan always wanted to be seen eventually as one of the highly educated skating champions.

"I always looked at Dick Button (Harvard) and Tenley Albright (Harvard) and Debi Thomas (Stanford),'' she said.  "You emulate them.''
 
Albright and Thomas are medical doctors.  Kwan was made an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters last year at Southern Vermont College, where she delivered the commencement address.

So here she is at 30, the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, with a B.A from the University of Denver and an M.A. from Fletcher School.

And 10 years from now?

"I haven't thought about it,'' she said.  "The big transition for me was from skating into school and onto another career path.

"Suddenly, skating isn't what you spend every waking hour thinking of.    It took some time, that transition, especially when I was in Denver.    I made a different routine.   Instead of waking up and going to training,  I was  waking up and reading and going to class and the library.

"At graduate school, I didn't think about skating.  I do miss it, but I realize this was the right thing to do.  Now I want to see what happens next.''


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