Figure Skating Legend Michelle Kwan

Michelle Kwan performing at the Chevy Skating Spectacular, part of the State Farm US Figure Skating Championships, January, 2003.
Getty Images / Matthew Stockman

Michelle Kwan is the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, but she is largely known for Olympic performances that fell short of expectations. Though Kwan was favored to win gold in the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, the top spot on the medals podium eluded her.

Early Stardom

Kwan, who was born in 1980, began figure skating lessons when she was 5, and by age 8 was studying with coach Derek James. At age 12 she began training with famed ice skating coach, Frank Carroll.

Kwan quickly rose to national prominence when she placed ninth in the National Junior Championships in 1992; she was just 12 years old at the time. By 1994, Kwan earned a place as an alternate to the Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway.

Missed Opportunities

Kwan won second place at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, after then top U.S. skater Nancy Kerrigan was injured when she was attacked. Kerrigan was coming off of the ice when an assailant hit her knee with a hard object. The incident made it impossible for Kerrigan to compete, and Tonya Harding won the event.

Regardless of the incident, Kwan had technically earned a spot on the 1992 Olympic team due to her second-place finish, but the U.S. Figure Skating Association decided to give Kerrigan the Olympic spot instead, making Kwan an alternate. Kwan did compete at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, each time as a favorite for the gold medal, gaining instead a silver and a bronze. An injury took her out of the 2006 games. 

Dashed Olympic Expectations

At each Olympics, Kwan seemed to hit roadblocks that prevented her from winning gold.

  • Kwan was favored to win the Olympics in 1998, but U.S. skater Tara Lipinski won instead. At the time, analysts said Kwan had skated too conservatively in her long program, while Lapinski took more risks and was rewarded for her spectacular performance.
  • Kwan broke off her coaching relationship with Carroll, her long-time coach, in 2001. Regardless, she was expected to win the Olympics in 2002 and did win the short program, but she did not skate well in the long program. She ended up winning a bronze medal, while 16-year-old American Sarah Hughes won the gold. 
  • Kwan did not compete in the 2006 U.S. Nationals, but she filed a petition for a medical waiver and asked to be part of the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. Kwan arrived at the site of the Games, Torino, Italy, but shortly after the first practice, suffered a groin injury and had to withdraw. Emily Hughes competed in her place. Japan's Shizuka Arakawa won the event.

Despite her Olympic setbacks, Kwan is still considered one of history's top female ice skaters -- not just in the U.S. but worldwide. "She is a two-time Olympic medalist, a five-time World champion, and a nine-time U.S. champion," notes Ranker, which places her fourth among all female ice skaters -- not a bad legacy, even if she didn't win Olympic gold.