I don’t remember the very first time I saw Michelle Kwan on television, but like millions of others around the world in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I hailed her as America’s sweetheart and masterful figure skater. Now as an adult, I also revere her as an Asian-American hero.
Some still say she is the best skater the sport has ever seen. Her dominance on the international stage lasted over a decade, winning 5 world championships and 9 national championships — and this is in a sport where most women retire by their early-20s after a few years in the senior ranks. She is the most decorated female American skater, though having never won Olympic gold.
Being a young figure skater myself, I was glued to the television every time Michelle competed. I would arrive at the rink the following day with renewed inspiration to work hard and improve my skills. With practice and persistence, I could become closer to being like my idol, Michelle.
Outside of the ice rink however, Kwan filled a gap that I couldn’t articulate or point to in that time of my life. I was a half-Chinese kid growing up in the suburbs of Florida and in my elementary school, I wasn’t just an oddball because of my obsession with a winter sport in a place known for eternal summers, but because I was one of the very few students who was Asian.
In the first grade, while my peers talked of attending Britney Spears concerts, my mom only listened to cassette tapes of ‘80s Mandarin love ballads. Like most other Asian-Americans now share on social media channels, I too have embarrassing lunch box stories of bringing pork floss, shrimp chips, and Yakult for snack time and being bullied for it. When my (Caucasian) Dad picked me up from school functions we often faced a barrage of questions along the lines of, “Did you adopt Megan from China when she was a baby?” My dad would retort every time, “No! I’m her father and I stayed in the delivery room the whole time when she was born!”
Since I couldn’t understand the lyrics to those love ballads nor watch CCTV broadcasts with my mom (which she watched via satellite dish back then but can now happily stream online), I consumed English-language media available to me. In books, movies, magazines and children’s television programs, I often did not see anyone who looked Asian. If a character was Asian they were never the starring role but a side character for comic-relief at best or used to reinforce negative stereotypes (see: Phoebe Heyerdahl from Hey Arnold! or Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles).
Life certainly imitated art in those elementary school days. I remember teachers favoring students who had mothers serve in the PTA; I remember clusters of children who went to the same church or Brownies chapter or cheerleading squad while I had no such shared after-school touchstones with these popular classmates.
This all changed in the winter of 2002. America was submersed in Olympic fervor as the Winter Games were held on home turf that year in Salt Lake City, Utah. Leading up to the opening ceremonies, every news outlet showed profiles on American athletes who were predicted medal winners.
The most media coverage was centered on Michelle Kwan and I was thrilled to see my hero on the covers of magazines and newspapers, on television commercials and talk shows. A classmate gave me a signed poster of Michelle included in his issue of Sports Illustrated and I couldn’t have been happier.
While I was glad my sport of choice was receiving more mainstream attention, it was the first time in my life a Chinese-American person was being cheered on by what it seemed like the whole country. For once, a girl who looked like me was the main character, the star, the favorite, which gave me a boost of confidence and pride I felt so powerfully but couldn’t name.
I now know that as a young girl I was hungry for representation, for a hero in America’s storybook that affirmed I belonged. When I felt like an outcast in those elementary school days — the humiliation of other kids making fun of my mother’s accented English, of teachers picking on me to speak on my experiences of living in “evil, Communist” China and asking if I ate dog or monkey brain, of screaming at a 5th grader who called me chink and then being punished for it — I yearned to be seen in another light that was not reduced to insensitive jokes and stereotypes. Other than the mythical heroine of Disney’s Mulan, I had Michelle to point to as my role model during childhood.
In the 2002 Olympics, Kwan won bronze after faltering in the long program, yet her star power remained long after she retired from eligible competition in 2006. Most fans of the sport remember Kwan’s poise, good sportsmanship, and strong work ethic. “She skated her best when lots and lots of people were watching, and…all the interviews she gave, just the way she comported herself, leaving the ice, coming onto the ice, dealing with success, dealing with disappointment — she is an impressive woman,” Olympic sports journalist Phil Hersh told NBC News. In the heyday of her career, her coach described Kwan’s level of fame to that of a rock star’s, and her achievements in the sport have inspired current Asian-American skaters to reach new heights. At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, 7 of the 14 figure skaters who represented the United States are of Asian heritage.
I stopped figure skating years ago, when it was evident I had hit a wall in the level of progress I could reach in competitions. While I may not be able to do a double flip or flying camel anymore, I remember the lessons skating taught me. When I failed to gain admission to my dream college, and then nearly did not finish my undergraduate studies on time and felt despondent about my future, I remember how graciously Michelle handled her disappointment of losing the gold at Salt Lake City. I remember her skating to Eva Cassidy’s Fields of Gold the day after the ladies’ final was all over, and instead of bitterness or regret, I saw the utter joy she emanated that could be felt by every member of the audience. I watched her go on to win the world championships the following year in 2003; she did not give up but came back stronger than ever. And like many other young Asian-Americans, I remember the courage she gave all of us that we could be the hero of our stories, and for that, I am grateful.