Michelle Kwan Looks Back on the Olympic Moment That Took Her Breath Away

Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, figure skating icon Michelle Kwan shared her most cherished memories from the 1998 and 2000 Games. "It's a moment to savor but also to be at your best," she told E! News.

By McKenna Aiello, Alli Rosenbloom Jul 06, 2021 7:00 PMTags
Michelle Kwan, YouTube Originals, RECIPE FOR CHANGE YouTube Originals /RECIPE FOR CHANGE

Michelle Kwan can still feel the adrenaline rush of stepping out onto the ice at her first Olympic Games.

At just 17, the figure skater brought home a silver medal for the U.S. at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. She'd go on to win five World Champion titles, nine U.S. Champion titles and a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Games—all while triple lutz-ing her way into the heart of many Americans. 

With just weeks remaining until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Michelle, now 40, empathizes with the immense pressure many competitors find themselves under at this moment.

"I stress out even thinking about what the athletes are going through!" she told E! News during a recent chat. 

These days, Michelle is using her platform to shine a spotlight on the Asian American Pacific Islander community. Amid an uprise in acts of violence against AAPI individuals, her YouTube Originals special, Recipe for Change, celebrates the community's vibrant culture and confronts its challenges.

Out now on Jason Y. Lee's Jubilee YouTube channel, Kwan is joined by activists, chefs and celebrities for what she described as "cathartic" and "emotional" conversations.

Unforgettable Fashion Statements at the Olympics

Read on for our exclusive Q&A with Michelle on all things Recipe for Change, plus the Olympics!

YouTube Originals /RECIPE FOR CHANGE

E! News: Hate against the AAPI community has risen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that impacted you personally?

Michelle Kwan: Well, to see the uptick and the increase in violence towards AAPI communities, specifically towards our elders and towards women, has been horrific. Seeing an older woman being attacked unprovoked... I see these images and it just breaks my heart. I see these images and I see my aunt, I see my mom, I see my grandfather and it really hits home.

For me, I'm a kid of immigrants. My parents immigrated to the United States in their early 20's. With my dad, it's hard because culturally we do not openly share and talk about things that have impacted us. Being Chinese American, oftentimes it's like keep your head down, just focus on what you have to do and keep quiet. My dad doesn't really talk about it, but it's like pulling these stories out of him. He said that when he first came to the United States, people would call out, 'Hey Chinaman, go back to where you come from.' I think of my father now; he's been in the country many, many more decades longer than the time spent in China. And oftentimes people will ask him, 'Where are you from? You speak English so well!' It's the stereotypes, right? And to me, it's these stories and these conversations that need to be altered in some way.

E! News: What does the "recipe for change" look like for you?

MK: The recipe for change is acknowledging, first and foremost, the things that are happening. We cannot ignore it, we cannot walk away, we cannot let it worsen. We have to stare right at it and talk about it.

E! News: Let's switch gears a bit. With the Tokyo Olympics right around the corner, talk us through the mindset athletes are likely in right now. 

MK: For an athlete training for the Olympics, they're really counting down—not the days—but the hours and the minutes. Even in an individual sport like mine, figure skating, you just see me out there on the ice. I had an entire team making sure that I was in the best shape, and that I was just fine tuning every little thing until the National Championships and then qualifying for the Olympic Games. And when you get to the Olympics, you kind of have to go on autopilot and let the good training that you've done in the last year speak for itself. You have to stay calm, whether it's meditation, whether it's zoning out, listening to music, whether it's positive affirmations in the mirror. I tried it all. I had superstitions as well. I had lucky charms that I brought and a necklace that was given to me by my grandmother.

Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

E! News: What's it like when you step out for the Opening Ceremony? Is there one year or moment that stands out?

MK: It's the entire experience of the Olympic Games, to be honest. It's not one moment. But the Opening Ceremonies, when you're with your fellow teammates and you see the figure skaters, the bobsledders, the skiers, everybody. You see the veterans, you see the rookies that are recording everything and taking pictures so they don't forget, which is great because it's once in a lifetime. 

It's such an emotional, two week experience because you envision this since you were a baby. Seven years old is when I first started to dream of going to the Olympic Games and then 10 years later I was there. For those 10 years I didn't think of anything else.

Olympic Gymnasts: Where Are They Now?

E! News: How did it feel to put on the Team USA uniform for the first time?

MK: There's nothing like it. You get this huge duffel bag, if not two duffel bags, of clothes and little knick-knacks from sponsors. You try on things and it's almost surreal. Like this is your moment and you're really, like I said, counting the days until you're either booking your flight and taking off to wherever those Olympics are, which in this case, is Tokyo. It almost takes your breath away, in some ways. Whether you're getting married or graduation, it's a huge milestone that you've waited such a long time for and it's here and it's now. It's a moment to savor but also to be at your best.

Watch: Why Simone Biles Is The G.O.A.T.

E!: Who are you most excited to see compete at the Tokyo Olympics? Do you have a favorite Summer sport?

MK: Ah, I love gymnastics. I was enrolled in gymnastics when I was a kid so I had to choose. My parents were like, 'You have to choose between gymnastics and figure skating,' so you know which one I chose. Simone Biles, she just dominates. I mean, she is just an incredible athlete and I can't wait to see every second that she's on television. Allyson Felix, who's a dear friend of mine, just qualified for her fifth Olympics as a mom. Not only one Olympic experience is extraordinary, but five? It's amazing.

So, I'll be glued to the television from the beginning to the end, cheering all the athletes. Americans especially, but every single one of them because I know how hard it is to get to that point, especially with everything that we've all been through throughout this pandemic and how hard everybody's trained to get there. It's just one of those enormous events that is extraordinary and brings the whole world together. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Check out E! News' 2022 Beijing Olympics homepage for news, photos and more.