It’s been just over a decade since Michelle Kwan last figure skated competitively — though by the looks of her Instagram, she hasn’t stayed off the ice.
Kwan has accomplished a lot in that time.
She earned her masters from Tufts University, worked for the US State Department, and campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton — and she’s still the most decorated American figure skater in history.
And the Olympian credits much of her success to the support of her parents.
Kwan — who most recently became an ambassador for the latest installment of Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign, called “Love Over Bias” — spoke to Global Citizen about her journey to success and the integral role her parents played in that journey.
A five-time World Champion, Kwan began skating when she was just 5 years old and by age 7 had set her sights on making it to the Olympics someday, she told Procter & Gamble.
But figure skating is a relatively expensive sport to practice, and to make her dream a reality Kwan’s parents, immigrants to the US from Hong Kong, worked multiple jobs to pay for skates and lessons. Her mom handmade her costumes to cut down on costs.
Kwan famously made it to her first national championship in used skates and a borrowed costume — but she never let that fact bother her, in fact, it fueled her.
“My parents juggled multiple jobs to put food on the table and a roof over our head, and I always say it was a lot of pressure, but it made me appreciate everything that much more,” she told Global Citizen. “I understood the hard work and the sacrifices they were making to give me this opportunity and chance.”
With the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, just around the corner, Kwan reflected on her parents’ unwavering support and how they paved the way for her to rise and succeed.
“I was very lucky to be born with this strong support system, my parents, and to have them as mentors and role models. And I’ve seen that not just in my personal life, but with other athletes too,” she said. “There's always one very influential person in their life — a coach or a mom or a dad — there's always one figure. And, actually, it's usually a mom. They're usually the ones driving you early in the morning to the rink, making sure that you eat right, and go to sleep early. They're the ones talking to the coach and getting their advice.”
Kwan considers herself especially lucky. Figure skating is a sport in which athletes are closely scrutinized, and as a teenager growing up in the limelight, it can be difficult.
As a young girl in an intense sport, Kwan said she felt isolated at times and even struggled to make friends. “But my parents were very protective and made sure that I was comfortable and still had as normal childhood as possible.”
From ages 11 to 27, Kwan competed at the highest level of figure skating and she said she sometimes felt public pressure and scrutiny.
“Especially in your early teens, as you’re becoming an adult and you’re maturing, and people are commenting on a little weight you gained or picking at everything from your costume to your make up,” Kwan said. “At times, I can see it being even harder for current athletes — like with social media. It's hard. I wish I could say that it never bothered me at all, but I had an incredible support system in my family so even when it bothered me, it really didn’t stick.”
In particular, she gives credit to her “super mom.”
“I’d be yelling across the rink like ‘Mom, do you have gloves?’ or even a tissue and she was right there next to the ice,” Kwan said. “She instilled in me the courage, focus, and determination, I needed to stay focused on the task at hand and be the best athlete I could be.”
Kwan’s story, and those of other athletes who overcame different forms of bias, inspired Procter & Gamble’s “Love Over Bias” short film. To discover more, visit LoveOverBias.com and join the conversation using #LoveOverBias.