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More than 20 years later, Michelle Kwan still holds a special place in hearts of Asian Americans

“For many Asian American women who have felt invisible, she was so visible, and visible because she was amazing at what she did,” one expert said.
Photo illustration of Michelle Kwan and Tara Lapinsky at the 1998 Olympics.
"We were proud of her then, and we’re still proud of her representing us as a people," one fan said.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

When Michelle Kwan surprised fans on Jan. 5 by announcing she’d given birth to a baby girl after keeping her pregnancy private, Amanda Lew Herman immediately texted her mom and cousin to celebrate the news. 

Keeping up with Kwan is a beloved pastime for Herman and her family, who hail from Los Angeles’ South Bay, minutes from Kwan’s hometown of Torrance.

As a girl and young adult, Herman often wore a necklace similar to the gold dragon pendant (a gift from Kwan’s grandmother) Kwan donned while competing. Herman remembers wearing it for big tests in school, in class pictures and even while interviewing for colleges. 

“I was so proud she was wearing something so proudly Chinese,” Herman, a former professional dancer and video editor, told NBC Asian America. “We were proud of her then, and we’re still proud of her representing us as a people. We all still hold this flame after 20 years; we still stan her so hard.”

The two-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion holds a special place in the hearts of Asian American millennials who have continued to follow Kwan — one of the country’s most visible Asian Americans and President Joe Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Belize — throughout her career. While Kwan has said she has no regrets about winning silver at the 1998 Winter Olympics after Tara Lipinski won the event, some members of her massive fan base are still not over the fact that she didn’t get the gold. 

image: Michelle Kwan competes during the long program at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.
Michelle Kwan competes in the long program at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.Simon Bruty / Getty Images file

“It did feel like a huge letdown because you’d watched her every move up until then,” said Stephanie Johnson, a former competitive figure skater and skating coach, who has looked up to Kwan since she first hit the ice at age 6. “You watched her career, all of her hard work and how consistent she had been in every competition up until then, and it was truly heartbreaking to see.”

Johnson, who was raised outside of Chicago and works as a commercial real estate banker, said being a fan of the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history was something special she shared with her Taiwanese immigrant mother, who died in 2010.

“It’s very nostalgic for me because we would watch all [of Kwan’s] competitions and all her exhibition programs,” she said. “I get emotional thinking about it because it was such a great experience, and watching her really made me love the sport.”

Rachael Joo, an associate professor of American studies at Middlebury College who teaches courses on race and sports, said '90s-era Asian American fans were drawn to Kwan’s relatability, artistry and excellence. “We really felt like she represented the kind of Asian American female figure that we all wanted to be,” she said.

“For many Asian American women who have felt invisible, she was so visible, and visible because she was amazing at what she did,” Joo said. “She really did seem to be not just the favorite of Asian Americans, but everyone’s favorite.”

Joo recalled watching Lipinski, now a figure skating analyst for NBC, beat out Kwan for the gold with a group of distraught Asian American friends while she was a student at Pomona College in Claremont, California. 

“We were just devastated,” she said. “There were people who were crying and angry.”

Fans were shocked when MSNBC’s website ran the notorious headline “American Beats Out Kwan” after the competition, which intimated that Kwan was not a U.S. citizen. Although the headline ran for less than 15 minutes, it went out to 85,000 subscribers of the site’s news alert service and drew ire from the Asian American community. (MSNBC later apologized.)

“It was heartbreaking for me as a fan of skating and shocking and dismaying as an Asian American and really horrifying for me as a journalist,” said Jeff Yang, who wrote about Kwan for the forthcoming book “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.” 

Yang remembered the nascent world of Asian American blogs being “up in digital arms” and early social networking platforms like Asian Avenue being a place for people to register their outrage. 

“This was really the first time that we started to see really active media activism at the mainstream level taking place on digital platforms,” Yang said. 

“I think it really underscored the fact that Asian Americans may still be very much a minority of the population of the U.S. and deeply underrepresented in many traditional categories and media spaces, but when it comes to the digital world, we punch above our weight,” Yang said.

Social media continues to be a space for Asian Americans to talk about Kwan, whether they’re reliving one of her skates or chatting about her impressive résumé. 

In response to a prompt about media representation, New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou recently tweeted, “Give me one Asian American in their 30’s who didn’t experience a huge shift between life before and then life after Michelle Kwan.”

In addition to her athletic prowess and artistry on the ice, the dearth of Asian Americans in popular culture in the late '90s and early 2000s helped her stand out even more. 

Kwan, who did not respond to requests for comment, appeared in episodes of “Family Guy,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “The Simpsons” and starred in the TV special “Reflections on Ice: Michelle Kwan Skates to the Music of Disney’s ‘Mulan.’” 

Scholastic published Kwan’s popular autobiography, “Heart of a Champion,” and she received major endorsement deals from brands including Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, McDonald’s and Yoplait. 

Kwan's fans have remained passionately interested for more than 20 years — from her attending college and graduate school to working for the State Department and sharing milestones like motherhood.

Image: Michelle Kwan speaks to the media before receiving a lifetime achievement award at The Sports Museum's Annual Gala in 2019.
Michelle Kwan speaks to the media before receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Sports Museum's annual gala in Boston in 2019.Paul Marotta / Getty Images file

Johnson said she and her friends love following the athlete-turned-diplomat’s post-skating career and enjoy seeing her friendship with Jonathan Van Ness from “Queer Eye” (Kwan appears on an episode of Van Ness’ new Netflix series “Getting Curious”).

Kwan’s fans say they still look up to her as a role model and feel they learn lessons from her about grace and resilience. 

“Tara Lipinski is incredible, but as an Asian American, I don’t relate to her in the same way as Michelle Kwan,” Herman said. 

“One of my big takeaways [about 1998] is we’re not over it, but I think she is,” Herman said. “She’s very much like, ‘I worked as hard as I could, and this is the outcome,’ and that is so inspiring as an adult that I try to remember that as well. I think if Michelle Kwan can get over it, I guess I can get over it.”