When her peers at the Fletcher School of International Relations at Tufts University would ask Michelle Kwan what she does outside the classroom, she'd say she used to be a figure skater. If they pressed her for details she had a standard response.
"I'm like, 'I was OK. I went to the Olympics,' " she said.
"They don't know that side of my life. They see me doing presentations on North Korea and talking about Kim Jong Il."
After decades of performing the gravity-defying jumps and dazzling spins that lifted her to nine U.S. championships, five world titles and silver and bronze Olympic medals, the Torrance native is building a fascinating second career as a budding expert on North Korea's dictator and other weighty matters.
Kwan was appointed the first U.S. public diplomacy envoy in 2006 by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling the globe to speak with students about leadership and social issues. She kept her job in the Obama administration and added a role on the presidential council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
After graduating from the University of Denver in 2008, she considered competing for a Vancouver Olympic berth and choreographed a short program. She shelved those plans when the opportunity arose to attend the prestigious Fletcher School, where she's focusing on a career in foreign service or politics. This week she will start the final year of a two-year program she wishes would never end.
"You meet such interesting people along the way. You find yourself in situations where you're like, 'Wow. I never thought of that,' " she said. "It might be a class or a lightbulb moment, something that alters your mind."
But Kwan, who turned 30 in July, hasn't left figure skating completely behind. She probably never will leave a world that is infinitely better for her artistry, grace and strength of character after her gold-medal dreams were dashed.
"I miss it," she said. "I miss getting out there on the ice and feeling like you don't have to think, you just have to move. At school I sit in front of the computer all the time and I'm thinking."
She exercised more than her brain muscles Tuesday, putting off her return to school and taking to the ice at Burbank's Pickwick Ice Center to publicize her performances in the "All That Skate L.A." show at Staples Center on Oct. 2 and 3. The cast is also scheduled to include Vancouver gold medalist Kim Yuna of South Korea — who is training at the rink Kwan owns, East West Ice Palace in Artesia — as well as Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and pair champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo of China.
Kim, who joined Kwan on the ice and later at a news conference, seemed star-struck to be sharing billing with the woman she has idolized since she saw Kwan's silver-medal performance at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
"I followed her every day and watched her programs so closely I almost memorized everything," Kim said through a interpreter.
"I'm so happy that I can perform together with her. It's such an honor to stand next to her. It's almost like a dream come true because I almost was in love with her."
Kwan insisted the honor was hers, a sentiment both diplomatic and heartfelt. She doesn't perform much — she did three shows with Kim in South Korea a year ago and four this summer in Seoul — and hasn't appeared before American audiences since the 2006 Champions on Ice tour, which followed her injury-driven withdrawal from the Turin Olympics.
This show, which incorporates music, dancing and technological marvels, hits all the who-what-where-when notes for Kwan. She won the 2002 U.S. championship at Staples Center before winning the bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Games and she misses no chance to watch her beloved Lakers when she's in town.
"I've been offered to do tours and shows. It was going to take a real special show for me to say yes," she said. "This one, with Yuna, with three Olympic champions, in Los Angeles, at the Staples Center, it's as special as it gets."
So is she, a beacon of elegance and perseverance that transcends her sport. Kwan won't be sitting on a barstool someday, tipsily telling people she used to be someone. Nor will she have to resort to participate in celebrity wrestling spectacles to make a living.
"I'm not very good at wrestling," she said, laughing.
"I've been very lucky. I've always wanted to learn, which just positions you to grow. As long as I'm learning and happy with what I'm doing, I'm happy."