Figure Skater Michelle Kwan Chases Gold in Rhode Island’s Gubernatorial Race
Once tasked with nailing triple Lutzes and Salchows, Michelle Kwan may soon be Rhode Island's first lady. The story behind her political rise (and that infamous Prius).
“Kwan for President,” reads the button, its size extra large and its design dull, with a white background and black type letters that seem to leap off the shirt of Dell Pellegrini. She glances down at the button when I mention it.
“Oh, this is from 2005,” says Dell, a self-described Michelle Kwan “uber-fan” who lives in Yonkers. “Some fans had them printed for nationals.”
Pellegrini is just one of Kwan’s many “MKFers,” what the skater calls those who participate in the Michelle Kwan Forum. This chat board has 85,000 posts in the “About Michelle” thread alone and oozes the kind of awe and praise that harkens back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Kwan was something of a national treasure.
It’s been almost a decade since Kwan won her last of a record nine U.S. Figure Skating titles. She is arguably one of the most successful skaters of all time: silver at the Olympics in 1998, bronze in Salt Lake in 2002, five World Championship golds and countless international medals. Kwan was a household name when figure skating was more than a once-every-four-years sport for Americans, wearing Vera Wang costumes on the ice and appearing on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
But it was at her two Olympics that Kwan couldn’t win what many thought she deserved: the coveted gold medal. In Nagano it was 15-year-old Tara Lipinski with her ‘90s bangs and sparkly blue dress who swooped in. Four years later American teenager Sarah Hughes shocked the sporting world with her gold at 16. Kwan was left dazed and without figure skating’s biggest prize.
Now eight years removed from competitive skating, Kwan has glided away from the sport and into another world altogether: that of politics. In the fall of 2006, the same year she withdrew from what was to be her last Olympics due to injury, she was appointed the country’s first-ever Public Diplomacy Envoy after expressing interest in the political realm at a dinner with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the position, Kwan travels the world for the State Department, engaging in such activities as speaking to school groups in Russia and meeting with sports ministers in Singapore. In 2012, she took a full-time job with the State Department as a senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a top figure skater make a transition like this so seamlessly, so quickly,” says Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist who has covered Kwan for 20 years. “From 2006 to now she has gone from one of the greatest champions in her sport to finishing her college degree, getting her master’s, getting married and all the while working at the State Department.”
Kwan earned her degree in International Studies at the University of Denver in 2008, then got her master’s at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2011. But the getting married part might be the most important: In January 2013, Kwan wed Clay Pell, the grandson of legendary Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, for whom Pell Grants are named after.
A year after their wedding day, 32-year-old Pell and 33-year-old Kwan announced side-by-side that he would be running for governor of Rhode Island in the Democratic primary. Headlines read in various forms of “Kwan’s Husband to Run for Governor,” her household name mega firepower for team Pell. The figure skater that could never win an Olympic gold was now launching herself into a long-shot political race alongside her husband, who has never held public office and is up against two popular Democrats in the state. Cue the dramatic music.
“Walking into the rink today I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I used to do every day,’” Kwan tells me on the phone. It’s early April and she’s in Los Angeles visiting her 10-year-old niece Olivia, who she says is turning into quite the skater. “For 20 years I never had a question about what I was going to do, it was just always about focusing on the next competition. Now, no two days are the same. The day-to-day is unpredictable.”
Figure skaters—and competitive athletes in general—are known to stick around their sports once they retire. Scott Hamilton created Stars on Ice and is an NBC commentator; Paul Wylie is a coach, motivational speaker, and consultant within the sport; and Johnny and Tara, who stole the glittery spotlight from their broadcast booth in Sochi, hardly need last names. But for all the dabbles in fashion or business ventures away from the sport, no skater has done what Kwan is doing, her under-the-radar competitive drive now boosted by the pulse of D.C., not a panel of pencil-holding rink-side judges.
“Michelle sat on the top of figure skating at a time when it had a white-hot spotlight on it,” says Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. “I can’t imagine that the skills she learned on the ice won’t translate to the campaign trail. What’s more political than figure skating?”
Wylie and I speak at the Figure Skating in Harlem gala on April 7, an annual event that raises money for the nonprofit. This year Kwan was honored at the gala, commanding the room in a confident red dress and earning the praises of Dylan Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s daughter and Dylan’s Candy Bar maven.
It’s there that I also speak with 2002 Salt Lake City bronze medalist Timothy Goebel, the “Quad King,” who stood on the same third-place platform as Kwan during those Olympics. While it was a lifetime achievement for Goebel, it was another dour disappointment for Kwan: another Olympics and no gold medal.
“For some people, the color of their Olympic medal defines them,” says Goebel, now a consumer analyst for an ad agency in New York. “I never felt like that about Michelle. She’s been able to transcend that with so much success off the ice.”
“Figure skating felt very selfish to me, so public service has just felt like this total calling for me,” Kwan says. “Being able to be behind the scenes gives me the chance to bring about strategy to make our programs more efficient and figure out ways to get citizens to be more engaged around the world.”
But first, there’s Pell’s gubernatorial run.
“Michelle has been an important part of the campaign. She brings a certain star-power to it,” says Ed Fitzpatrick, a political columnist for the Providence Journal. “She’s got some personality, is used to being in the spotlight, and is obviously a big asset to his campaign.”
“But there’s been a downside to it, too: the Prius that was stolen was hers,” Fitzpatrick adds. “The headlines were endless.”
What Fitzpatrick is referring to is this: In February, the Pell campaign made national news when Kwan’s car was stolen. Though the car was found weeks later, the episode became the biggest of campaign fodder because Pell had reported the same car missing in December, only to find it the next day, realizing he had left it running behind a CVS and walked home. The episodes spawned a mock Twitter handle, @PellKwanPrius and didn’t do any favors for the 32-year-old trying to run a big-boy campaign for governor.
Pell is a Georgetown Law graduate who served in the Coast Guard before taking positions with the White House (National Security) and the Department of Education (Office of International and Foreign Language Education). His pedigree is top-notch, but his political experience still green.
A Brown University poll in early April put Pell at 9.6 percent, far behind State Treasurer Gina Raimondo (29 percent) and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras (26 percent).
“Clay has an uphill battle,” Fitzpatrick explains. “In any other race, with the Pell name and the star-power of Michelle I think he would stand a better chance. He’s got a hard job.”
How much time Pell and Kwan have spent actually living in Rhode Island (they have a house in Providence) has come into question. Pell’s campaign is seen as legitimate, yet voters (35 percent of them undecided in the Brown poll) don’t quite know what to think of him yet.
“He hasn’t really gone after big money or unveiled his big campaign platforms,” Fitzpatrick adds.
All four Democratic candidates were on stage for an event last week and Fitzpatrick says Pell “did really well. It wasn’t like he didn’t belong up there.”
Once tasked with nailing triple Lutzes and executing graceful layback spins, Kwan now not only has D.C. to navigate, but the entire state of Rhode Island. Come January, she could be the state’s first lady.
“It’s been an incredible experience crisscrossing the state alongside my husband,” says Kwan, who then lightheartedly points out that sometimes she’s the one who needs support at a public event. “I try to be on the campaign trail as much as I can. There are a number of things that I have been involved with already in Rhode Island, so sometimes it’s Clay coming to something I’m doing.”
“I’m really proud of Michelle and what’s she’s been able to do,” Clay Pell tells me on the phone, his voice unassuming and his words slow and deliberate. “She really wanted to not only be the face of things, but be working on policy. Because of that, she uses her bright ideas to take care of people. That’s Michelle.”
Kwan can call the “other” Michelle—Obama, that is—a friend (“I assure you,” she laughs. “She’s a good dancer.”) and clearly isn’t fazed by the tasks at hand, even if Pell’s run might just be testing the waters.
“I always knew that Clay would run one day, there was no doubt in my mind,” she says. “This is quite different from skating. The state of Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. and it needs a fresh perspective to be put back on the right track. For me, sports have always been a hobby. You can look at it as a career, but it was more just something I really enjoyed doing. It’s difficult to compare the two arenas.”
In January, Kwan attended the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston for her work with Fox Sports, whom she reported for in Sochi. At one point over the weekend, the TD Garden fans spotted Kwan’s seat in press row and lined up for autographs. I watched as each reached up to the press box, memento in hand. Kwan smiled and signed, smiled and signed, but eventually had to abandon the seamlessly endless line: she wasn’t there for autographs.
“What worked for her as a skater is now working for her in her life after the sport,” says the sports journalist Brennan, who wrote Inside Edge, a book that detailed skating’s heyday in the mid-1990s. “She’s never rushing into anything. It appears to me that once again she’s getting 6.0s in this part of her life.”
The question then looms for Kwan: Will she ever run for office herself?
“I’m definitely open to possibilities and opportunities in the future,” Kwan says.
I tell her about the “Kwan for President” button. She laughs.
“I think my fans just have high hopes for me,” Kwan says, giggling a little more. “When they say strive for excellence, I guess they mean the presidency.”
Or perhaps she and Pell could try the figure skating pairs event in Pyeongchang in 2018?
“We might have to wait and do further lessons after the election,” Pell says lightheartedly, himself a beginner. “You can never count us out, though. I need to do some work on my triple Salchow.”