Of Grace and Gold
(A Personal Retrospective of Michelle Kwan)
by Karissa Chen
My mother wants me to paint the walls of my childhood bedroom. They haven’t changed much since 1998, the last year I lived in this apartment as a teenager. They're draped in ornate pink wallpaper, picked out by me when I was eleven. There are remnants everywhere of my teeny-bopper interests: Titanic posters, Drew Barrymore, Party of Five promos, Chris O’Donnell, a Got Milk? ad featuring Ekaterina Gordeeva and her young daughter. There is also, nestled between a Dawson’s Creek ad and a clipping of Leonardo DiCaprio, a picture of Michelle Kwan in a periwinkle outfit, arm pulled back in a triumphant fist-pump.
I live in that room now. Struggling to make it as a writer, I can’t afford to move out of the old apartment, and it is both out of nostalgia and laziness that I don’t pull down the posters. There is a story written on my walls that I am reluctant to erase, my own insecurity and awkward transition to adolescence scrapbooked for me. I feel a tenderness toward the girl who carefully clipped these pictures from magazines; I want to protect the things she loves.
The Olympics are less than three weeks away, and I’ve volunteered to write an essay about Michelle Kwan. I research next to her picture for hours, sucked into old video clips of her performances on Youtube. At one point, while watching an interview with Michelle right before the 2006 Torino Olympics, I start to cry. She doesn’t know yet that she will suffer a groin injury the first day she practices there, forcing her to withdraw. She doesn’t know she will lose her third and final gold before she can even try to win it.
Michelle Kwan was thirteen when she flew to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics as an alternate. I was eleven then, and still too caught up in the drama between Kerrigan and Harding to really pay attention to the little Asian girl who watched her teammates with nervous excitement from the wings. My mother though, pointed her out to me. “They say she’s one to watch,” she said. “She’s barely older than you.”
Soon I found myself gravitating towards this girl whose two years on me seemed to promise a maturity I hoped to one day have. Unlike with the other female celebrities I idolized – Jennie Garth, Tiffany Amber Thiessen – I didn’t find Michelle particularly pretty, but she excited me. For the first time, I saw someone on TV who was just like me, my kind of Chinese, my kind of American, right around my age. She wore a gold dragon necklace and went to school in California. She cared about her family and laughed easily, spoke both Cantonese and English. I knew her. I got her. So of course, I rooted for her to succeed.
I can’t say exactly when I began following figure skating, except to say that I probably always had. I have early memories of scouring the TV guide and happily finding the long gray blocks denoting a US Championship or Skate America. My family didn’t have much of a sports culture – aside from the stray Agassi match or an occasional Jets game, we hardly ever had sports on – and yet we loved figure skating.
I remember rooting for Katarina Witt first when she represented East Germany and later, the new united Germany. Idolizing both Kristy Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan, two different American girls I wanted to be. Being awestruck by the athleticism of Midori Ito and Surya Bonalae. Envying the romance between Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. Despising, with a hatred unbefitting a young girl, Tonya Harding.
When Michelle Kwan appeared on the scene though, it all became about her.
I was in 8th grade during Michelle’s 1995-96 breakout season. I had a fondness for Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, a crush on a high school senior who rode the same bus as I did, an unusual love of all things Hello Kitty and Winnie-the-Pooh, a reluctant purple belt in karate, and a new best friend named Tomoko with whom I exchanged long folded notes written in colored gel pens. This was also the year I grew five inches, traded in my large red and gold rimmed glasses for contacts, began wearing a training bra, and experienced my first period.
On one of our first sleepovers, Tomoko and I pulled out my yearbook from the previous school year. We flipped through the pages, pointing out girls in the upper grades we thought were beautiful, fine-featured brunettes we’d seen walking down the halls with their Kate Spade bags or glossy blondes laughing in the cafeteria after lacrosse practice. We debated their eyes, their noses, the fullness of their lips. When we got to the crop of current seniors, we lingered, looking for the faces of the Asian girls we’d seen hanging around together at a table near the cafeteria doors. We’d dubbed them, and the handful of Asian guys they hung out with, “The Asian Posse”, and they fascinated us the same way Jennifer Love Hewitt and Alicia Silverstone did. Poring over the pages, we decided which girl we thought was the most naturally beautiful, which one seemed the sweetest, which one seemed most put together. We learned their names. These girls, who didn’t know we existed, seemed impossibly self-assured and cool to us, and at school, we scrutinized them for the way they dressed, the makeup they wore, the way they flirted with guys. We imagined their lives, became invested in their heartbreaks and successes. Their future was the one we wanted. It was one where we could cast off the awkward versions of our selves, and become something other girls would want to be.
That same year, Michelle Kwan returned to the figure skating scene with a new maturity. Gone was the fresh-faced little girl from the previous years. Now she appeared with eyeshadow and lipstick, provocative new costumes, and artistry that she hadn’t displayed before. Her extensions were more graceful, her expressions more nuanced. Suddenly she wasn’t just skating, she was dancing.
Michelle won her first National Championship and Grand Prix that season, and moved on to the World Championships. After a solid short program, she entered the free skate neck-in-neck with Chen Lu of China, the reigning world champion. It was during the last few seconds of that program, dressed as Salome in a skimpy purple outfit, that Michelle threw in a final, unexpected triple toe loop to make up for one she’d doubled earlier in her long program, to the delight of commentators. The extra triple, combined with two perfect 6.0s for artistic presentation, gave Michelle a combined score high enough to win her first World title.
At fourteen, I was entering a time of confusion and insecurity. My favorite album was now No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, my favorite movie was Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, my new crush was my best guy friend, and my best friend was still Tomoko, though I worried constantly that we were drifting apart because I didn’t know how to talk about makeup and clothes, and I didn’t have crushes on sandy-haired movie stars.
The Asian Posse had graduated in June, but Tomoko and I still longed for our own Asian posse. We wouldn’t be exclusive, we declared, in response to the tight-knit group of Korean kids in our grade that we both hated and secretly wished to be accepted by. Our own group of friends was fairly diverse, which we liked, and we reasoned we could have a strong core of Asian friends who simultaneously got along with everyone.
That winter, I received my first kiss, not from the friend I believed myself to be desperately in love with, but from a guy a year older who flirted with me and asked me to the Winter Formal. Confused and flattered, I said yes, and suddenly I had a boyfriend. He kissed me behind stage after an Asian American Awareness assembly in which I gave a prepared speech about “Twinkies” and Chinese school and dog eating. The kiss was wet and sloppy, leaving a pool of saliva under my lower lip and the taste of egg salad in my mouth. I didn’t like it. I wondered if something was wrong with me. A few days later, one of the Korean girls in my grade came up to me at my locker and asked me what I was trying to do by dating her friend. “Are you trying to be one of us?” she asked rhetorically before walking off. I broke up with my boyfriend three days later, not even two weeks after we’d started dating.
I wrote long, terrible rhyming poems that year, and several short stories, including one about a girl who wanted green colored contacts and another about a child fascinated by the industriousness of ants. I grew a few more inches, and gained a little bit more weight, although I was still slight for my age. I made new friends in the grade above me, quirky, wholesome kids that some of my current friends weren’t too sure were “cool”, joined theater and stage crew, and fell in love with classical singing, something I wanted very badly to be good at but despaired of ever being even halfway decent. My grades were mostly in the B-range, and I had yet to find anything I truly excelled at besides writing.
At the end of the stories, the girl fell in love with her own gold-flecked, brown eyes and the anthill was obliterated by an adult sneaker.
Michelle’s changing adolescent body was one of the media’s focal points during their coverage of her difficult 1996-97 season. Her center of gravity was shifting with her new curves and growth spurt, they said, as they replayed her trips and falls. They speculated that the added weight and height, combined with new boots that she couldn’t get used to, ones that came as part of an endorsement contract, meant that Michelle was literally uncomfortable skating in her own skin. Over and over again, she stepped out of landings, stumbled, or sprawled to the ice.
Tara Lipinski, two years younger than Michelle, would take advantage of the open door, beating Michelle out for gold in the Nationals, Champions Series Final, and Worlds that year. She was small and bubbly, an all-American girl with fluffy blond-brown bangs and a large wide smile. Her costumes sparkled, her jumps were bright little tornadoes. Her signature move, unlike Michelle’s elegant yet simple change-of-edge spiral, was a triple loop-triple loop combination, which she executed like a firecracker. I watched her waving above Michelle on the podiums, and resented her.
In late 1997, my parents sat me down and told me that we would be moving to Asia after the end of my sophomore year. Beijing or Hong Kong, it hadn’t been decided. I’d been to Beijing once before, the summer after 8th grade, and found it dusty and sprawling, a skeleton of a metropolis with a few spidery highways and one or two ugly high-rise buildings. Men had stared at me unwaveringly as I walked down the street, so obviously was I an American, and I’d grabbed my father’s arm to hide behind him.
I did not want to move to Beijing.
My parents promised Hong Kong would be better, that it would be more cosmopolitan, that I would like it. They decided they would push for Hong Kong.
I began to cut classes, skip assignments, even as I threw myself into the extracurriculars I loved – the choir, the theater, the Asian American club – as if I would never have another chance to do those things again. I fought constantly with my parents, doling out punishment alternately in silent treatments and tantrums. I cried on shoulders of friends during free periods, unable to let go of my disappointment at my well-laid plans rendered obsolete. A conscientious worker my entire life, I received my first C that year, in Chemistry.
When I tried to imagine Hong Kong, I pictured a sea of black heads and pale featureless faces, but beyond that, couldn’t fathom anything else. Well-meaning friends asked me if I was excited to move back and I retorted, “I’m not moving back to anywhere. I’m from here. I’m moving away.”
What I loved about Michelle was that she didn’t just skate, she felt. Sure, she was technically en pointe, her jumps tight, her landings straight and smooth, but what made me care about her skating, what kept me watching year after year, was everything in between those impressive spins. Michelle radiated emotion while she glided on the ice, her face displaying honest expressions of joy or vulnerability, her hands and arms gracefully dipping in the air. Sometimes she raced around the rink exuberantly, other times she picked and paused, delicate footwork and lengthy extensions giving her a sense of uncertainty. Her skating was magnanimous, and it invited the audience to experience, for the few minutes she was there, a story she was sharing, not just about Salome or the music or the idea behind the choreography, but also about herself, a girl who loved skating, a girl becoming a woman on the ice. Yes, she was an athlete, and this was a competition, but most of all – truest of all – she was an artist.
In 1998, Michelle regained her National title from Tara Lipinski. Each jump during her two performances was a triumph, particularly since Michelle had been suffering from injury all season. But what was most remarkable were the number of perfect marks she received for her artistic presentation – seven 6.0s for her short program, eight 6.0s for her long program. Sometimes you watch a skater in the rink, and the performance is solid, but uninspiring; those two days while Michelle performed, the air crackled. Her long program, set to “Lyra Angelica”, sent chills running through my body that I couldn’t shake. The audience there must have felt them too – applause thundered through the arena before Michelle finished her final moves.
For many, those two performances represent the height of Michelle’s career. At the time, it was merely another confirmation to me of how special and worthy of my adulation Michelle was, one that made me certain she would soon be on her way to Olympic gold. But when I watch those clips now, I see it differently. The elation on her face as she holds her last pose, arms outstretched – as if in triumph – tells me this was a woman who knew she had arrived. This was someone who had lost and worked and grown and finally found herself – and knew what she’d found was beautiful.
If I pull out my school portraits from those years, I know I can’t see them clearly for what they are, and instead, see them as I did back then. In one picture (which I later retook because I hated it so much), I am wearing overalls and a yellow-flowered shirt. My bangs, recently cropped, are too short and a bit uneven, and my hair is pulled into a ponytail. My eyes have shadows under them, a byproduct of wearing glasses for too many years and reading too much in the dark. I am looking up from below a tilted face, my smile unsure, my teeth only starting to lose that oversized look between my lips. In another, I am wearing a white baby tee, with a green and blue jigsaw heart on the chest. My arms are thin, my hair is limp. My eyes are small, like I am squinting in the sun, and my mouth seems large and fat. I am seated at an angle, and trees blur behind me. In the final picture, a retake of my sophomore portrait, my hair is chin-length and my bangs are pinned back from my face. For once, my smile seems confident, but my shoulders are at an awkward angle in relation to my head, and the lip gloss I’ve worn is a shade too maroon for my skin tone. The periwinkle shirt I am wearing has a collar and a zipper down the front. The color washes me out.
If I were to take out pictures from even before then, I would find pictures of a bucktoothed girl wearing oversized glasses, hair crimped and permed, wearing pink sweaters with hearts or fuzzy green plaid blazers with shoulder pads. This was the girl voted “sweetest” in 6th grade, the girl who spoke to everyone but family and closest friends in a high-pitched barely-there decibel, the girl who wrote stories at recess and wished for green eyes and thought no boy would ever like her because she was Asian.
As an adult, I’ve been told by various men that I am pretty, beautiful even, and yet the first few times I heard this word, beautiful, I refused to believe them, particularly when the man was white. It was, and to some degree, still is, too hard to believe that I am not still that nerdy Chinese girl, quietly mocked or overtly ignored by the “cool” kids, painfully aware of the grace and beauty she lacks. Sometimes, when I am around new people I want to impress, I catch myself in that girl’s skin again, awkward and shy, convinced that my supposed prettiness has also disappeared, and with it, any chance of being taken seriously.
Michelle exited her brilliant long performance at the 1998 Nagano Olympics with quivering lips, her face crumpling into heaving sobs as her coach embraced her. These were the sobs of someone who had left it all out on the ice, who believed she had secured her victory. But the scores came back lower than anyone expected. “If she’d skated last, these would have been 6.0s,” one of the commentators remarked when her presentation scores came in. Her technical numbers had come in at 5.7s and 5.8s. “They’re leaving room,” they concluded.
For a long time, this was the reason I would cling to when Tara Lipinski edged Michelle out for the gold medal. I believed she’d been ripped off, that if she’d gone last, the judges would have remembered how mesmerizing her performance was, and wouldn’t have allowed Tara, whose exuberant performance hadn’t moved me but was admittedly strong, win first place. My old hatred for Tara Lipinski came back. I watched her giddiness, her girlish squeals of excitement, and while I wanted to be gracious, to be happy that someone so young had achieved her dream, I couldn’t.
And yet, Michelle could. The media would remark on Michelle’s graciousness during a press conference with Tara, her quiet humility as journalists pressed for her thoughts on her defeat while she forced back tears. She did not complain, did not whine, did not make even the slightest remark that could be mistaken for passive aggressiveness. When asked what she thought of the girl who had just defeated her, Michelle turned to her and said, “Tara, I like you.” The world loved her for it.
Over time, I got used to Hong Kong. I learned to love the city itself, even if I never quite found a niche in my new international high school, though that was more out of my unwillingness to let go of my former life than because of a lack of opportunity. To my surprise, in Hong Kong, boys found me intriguing and pretty. I was a new girl, and they’d never seen me in my grandma glasses or goofy clothing, had no assumptions about where I fit or did not fit in. I still felt awkward at times, but nobody else seemed to notice, or maybe they didn’t care. We were in high school; we all had our quirks.
Mandarin was offered in my high school so I signed up for the chance to improve my mother tongue. I learned curse words in Cantonese. I became an avid lover of karaoke, in English and in Chinese. I made friends who came from all over the world, and learned, to my shock and dismay, that America was not uniformly seen as the wonderful country I had always believed it to be. The small city made it easy for me to travel alone, giving me independence I hadn’t had back in the States. I took advantage of the freedom, going to dinner with friends, dancing in clubs, shopping for clothes that I had finally developed an interest in. I learned to negotiate with jewelry vendors, despite the occasional language barrier. One day a woman stopped me on the street and asked me if I would join her modeling agency. I blushed, gave her my number, and ran away.
This is what I know about grace: it is something you can be and something you can give. It is both the way you hold yourself and the way you treat others. We use the word to characterize movement and beauty – She walks with such grace – to talk about how someone acts or reacts in a difficult situation – She handled that with grace – and, perhaps most Biblically, to talk about forgiveness – This second chance is through God’s grace.
Beauty, humility, forgiveness. Three words in three different contexts that, if you think about it, are each arms of a complete notion.
At a tender age, when I was trying to form ideas of who I was, who I wanted to become, who I could become, there was Michelle Kwan, showing me grace was beauty. You could pursue a dream with passion, precision and gracefulness. You could accept loss and setback with graciousness. And you could extend grace to people’s humanity, their missteps, their flaws, particularly your own.
What I know about grace is what I learned back then: it is the thing I strive to embody, the best way to become a beautiful person. Michelle modeled a new version of beauty at a time when I believed I would never be anything but ugly and awkward. I loved her, and I watched the world love her, and the notion of grace quietly began to infiltrate my previous idealizations of tall, flaxen, arrogant beauty. I would not have been able to articulate that then. I’m not even sure I was aware of it. But I now know that it’s true.
When I began to research this essay, I combed through video clip after video clip of Michelle’s performances, some tremendous, others not so much. I checked facts, things I couldn’t remember or hadn’t paid attention to when I was younger, like the number of medals she’d won, the music she used for performances, the name of her choreographer. I watched interviews and documentaries, including ones made right before the Torino Olympics, in which she was assumed to compete. I learned about her family’s sacrifices, houses put up for sale, Christmases without trees, and related to their shared love and values.
In a People magazine profile of Michelle written shortly before the 2002 Olympics, Christine Brennan, the well-known USA Today figure skating columnist, was quoted as saying, “If she wins that Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City… I think she will be seen as the greatest figure skater in history. Without the Olympic gold medal, I think she will be seen as the second, third or fourth best in history.”
What does it mean to win the Olympic Games? I would argue that the Olympics have always been about more than athletic ability. I think they strike something in all of us because they ask us to celebrate the human spirit, that the reason we love our athletes is because they exemplify the courage, sportsmanship, dignity, and perseverance we all hope to find in ourselves. So this is the thing: I didn’t want Michelle to win the gold because I thought she needed to prove she was a great athlete. After all she had done for the sport, for young women, for Asian American women, I knew she embodied the spirit of the games. I wanted her to win the gold because I believed she deserved it.
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a 2004 documentary that I found something that would finally, after over a decade, help me lay down some of the bitterness I’d been holding onto. “I just realized: life is just as good winning the silver,” Michelle said. “It doesn’t make me a better person if I had won the gold. It doesn’t make me any different. It’s just metal.”
It is hard to write this piece, and I’m not entirely sure why. I sit on my bed watching the third snowstorm of the new year obliterate Manhattan from view as I try to land this essay somewhere that makes sense. I try to think of the young girl who loved Michelle, who wanted to be a version of her without understanding why, and wonder what she would make of where we’ve ended up. I wonder if she would be disappointed that we’re thirty-one, unmarried, working as an assistant and living in the same room we left when we were sixteen. I wonder if she would be satisfied that most of the time we look in the mirror and believe we’re pretty, that we quit our corporate job to pursue writing, that our best friend considers us one of the most graceful people she knows. I wonder if she would have imagined all of this would be part of the dream she has for our future.
There is one performance of Michelle’s that I didn’t need to rewatch in order to remember, because I’ve watched it countless times. It’s the exhibition skate she performed the day after she fell during her long program at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and placed third. The song she skated to was Eva Cassidy’s rendition of “Fields of Gold,” a title whose bitter irony the media didn’t fail to notice. I’ve watched this program when I’ve wanted to relive Michelle’s career, when I’ve wanted to feel moved, when I’ve felt defeated and needed to know things would be okay. I watch it now.
Imagine: The moment Michelle’s name is announced, the audience is on their feet, welcoming her, telling her she is beloved. Michelle wears a gold sequined dress, her hair is half up. She gets into position. Suddenly Eva Cassidy’s voice soars through the arena. It ripples into the dying applause, and Michelle is moving. She glides, quietly, gracefully along the ice, a rich, sharp sound of blade as she finishes each jump. Sometimes she reaches out her arms to the audience as if to embrace them, other times she spirals, her fingers caressing the rink’s frozen surface. Halfway through, she is crying, her dark hair billowing around her like a veil. The crowd is watching, I am watching, but we all know Michelle is alone with her ice. The moment is intimate, like catching a glimpse into her diary or hearing her sing in the shower, a moment we know we are privileged to see. Her legs extend behind her, her palms are up, her body is outstretched. She moves without moving, sails, flies. We’re applauding, our hearts are bursting, we want to tell her it’s okay, that gold is just a color, we want her to know how loved she is.
I don’t know where I will go from here. The skyline is a screen of grayish-white, there are ice floes swimming along the Hudson. I am still in pajamas, glasses on, trying to wrap up this essay for a deadline that looms too close, and I don’t know how to end it neatly, or more importantly, successfully. I watch Michelle in the spotlight, dancing in a darkened rink, so beautiful that I can’t believe I once thought she wasn’t pretty. My room is washing indigo from the waning day. The pictures from my adolescence are still on the walls, but I know with the painters coming, soon they’ll have to go.
KARISSA CHEN is the author of the chapbook Of Birds and Lovers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Good Men Project, Necessary Fiction, and Eclectica Magazine, and will be anthologized in Outpouring: Typhoon Yolanda Relief Anthology. A Voices/VONA fellow, she received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was the recipient of the diFilipis-Rosselli Scholarship at the Napa Valley Writers Conference in 2011. She is currently the fiction and poetry editor at Hyphen magazine, where she curates The Hyphen Reader, a monthly round-up of Asian American literature from around the web. She'll probably watch the Winter Olympics this year after skipping it the last couple of times.