Figure Skating Star Michelle Kwan’s New Life as a U.S. Ambassador

The Olympic medalist has remade herself as a champion of democracy in her role in Belize

If the name Michelle Kwan means anything to you, it probably conjures up an image of a young woman in a glittery costume and skates. The most award-winning U.S. figure skater ever, Kwan is a two-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion, and nine-time U.S. champion.

But this story is not about that Michelle Kwan. Or rather, it is about how that popular athlete has reinvented herself as an American envoy, a presidential campaign aide—and now, the U.S. ambassador to Belize.

“In hindsight, it seems like a very smooth transition from the sport of figure skating. Representing the United States at the Olympic Games, you're sort of a quasi-diplomat,” said Kwan, who earned a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts in 2011. “That's how I got interested in studying IR.”

(IR stands for international relations; Kwan, like many who work in the State Department, speaks frequently in acronyms.)

At 43 years old, Kwan now aims to advance the Biden administration’s foreign policy instead of landing complicated jumps. Although the goals are different, she applies the same lessons from her parents that helped make her a champion on the ice. As she put it in her autobiography (published when she was 17): “Work hard, be yourself, have fun.”

Part of that hard work is ensuring that Belize, a small nation on the northeastern coast of Central America, does not become a haven for criminal groups. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime ranks the country among the top 10 in the world for homicides per capita, though global statistics are murky. While most murders there occur on the gang-ridden south side of Belize City (which tourists are warned to avoid), the rest of the country is experiencing an increase in violent crime, according to the State Department, which also says that Belize is a major transit zone for narcotics and other contraband.

Kwan and her team hammer out deals behind the scenes to tackle these challenges. For them, a win might be channeling U.S. funds to help Belize crack down on drug trafficking. As ambassador, Kwan is the public face of such achievements.

U.S. Ambassador Michelle Kwan with military and government officials in Belize

U.S. Ambassador Michelle Kwan presides over the March 2023 donation of a state-of-the-art aircraft to Belize, to assist with reconnaissance, search and rescue, and military operations there. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Embassy Belize

Take, for example, a day of which she is particularly proud: March 1, 2023. Just four months into her new role, Kwan presided over the transfer of a Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft from the U.S. to Belize’s defense ministry, part of a donation worth $7.84 million.

Standing beneath the hot sun, with Belize’s prime minister and several members of the nation’s Cabinet beside her and the nine-passenger plane as a backdrop, Kwan spoke of the two nations’ “shared pursuit of secure borders and regional stability.”

Later, she explained that the plane would improve Belize’s “ISR capabilities” (that’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), which is critical to “INL programs” (international narcotics and law enforcement). In other words, it’s essential to fighting crimes that could threaten Belize and its neighbors, including the U.S.

On that same day, Kwan attended a ceremony at which the government of Belize and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency, signed an agreement to reduce poverty in Belize. The effort, funded with an initial $10 million from the U.S., aims to improve education through student assessments and teacher trainings and cut the cost of electricity by investing in solar power infrastructure. It may unlock as much as $100 million in U.S. grants over the next five years.

Reflecting on how the U.S. investments she helped steer will improve conditions in the region, Kwan sounded just as happy as she once was discussing double axels and camel spins.

These days, when she takes her place on the podium, she aims to be the champion of “fostering democracy and shared prosperity in the Western Hemisphere.”

“In hindsight, it seems like a very smooth transition from the sport of figure skating” to the world of international diplomacy.

U.S. Ambassador Michelle Kwan

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is home to fewer than 450,000 people—about the same number as the city of Miami, which is just a two-hour flight north. The country’s proximity to the United States, combined with its Caribbean waters, Mayan ruins, and official embrace of English, makes it a popular tourist destination for Americans. About 1 million people visit each year.

President Biden nominated Kwan to the ambassador post after she worked on his campaign for two years as director of surrogates, lining up endorsements from elected officials, celebrities, and other allies.

Rolling up her sleeves, rather than just writing a check, is Kwan’s style, according to Jennifer Palmieri, who was the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, on which Kwan also worked. “It used to surprise some people on the Clinton campaign to see her at her desk in yoga pants and go, ‘That’s Michelle Kwan,’” Palmieri told the Washington Post in 2019. She’s “a total worker bee, but then she can trade the yoga pants for an outfit for the red carpet and speak for the campaign herself.”

Kwan arrived in Belize in December 2022 and immediately got down to business. She emphasized that her role involves much more than photo ops.

“I think it's misconstrued, with what people see on television,” she said. “We are outward facing in terms of giving interviews and delivering remarks at events, but it's also working alongside our team closely in addressing the real concerns that we have here, which are border security, migration, and transnational criminal organizations.”

Her job is not nearly as glamorous as you might think from The Diplomat, a Netflix series Kwan said she couldn’t even watch to the end because it’s so unrealistic. For starters, there’s no wardrobe or makeup crew.

Instead, the team helping her includes career Foreign Service officers from the State Department and staff connected to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Defense. Kwan tries to ensure that those U.S. diplomats, their families, and local employees have a great experience at the embassy—and she seems to be succeeding.

An officer at the embassy said, “She’s the biggest morale booster I have ever seen in my work life.”

One weekend in September, after hosting a U.S. delegation including representatives from the office of the vice president and the Department of Defense all week, she and nearly two dozen staff members went snorkeling together on the coast, about an hour’s drive from the embassy. “It's important to play,” she said. “Work hard, play hard.”


Ambassador Michelle Kwan paints a mural alongside men in Belize

U.S. Ambassador Michelle Kwan and former rival gang members put the finishing touches on a mural dedicated to peace in Belize City in July 2023. The project was part of a U.S. Embassy-funded program that engaged former gang members in vocational and entrepreneurial training. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Embassy Belize

The third child of parents who immigrated from China, Kwan grew up in California, where she took to the ice at a young age. Her Olympic dreams—and the training they demanded—consumed much of her youth and strained her parents’ limited funds. Yet even when she was at the top of her sport, she was learning important lessons about perspective. She internalized the first rule of skating: how to fall, get right back up, and keep going.

Millions of people watched 16-year-old Kwan do just that in 1997, when she fell repeatedly while trying to defend her title as world champion. Later, she chalked up her wobbly performance (which still earned her the silver) to forgetting what was important.

“I learned that I needed to love the sport again,” she wrote in her autobiography, Michelle Kwan: Heart of a Champion. While she continued to be fiercely competitive, she tried to remember that her real reason for being on the ice was not to win medals but to have fun.

That attitude was famously on display when she received a silver medal at the 1998 Olympics, where she had been favored to win gold. She skated her program flawlessly, but her younger teammate, Tara Lipinski, upstaged her with triple jumps that wowed the judges. Kwan’s graciousness about coming in second is still remembered.

By the time she officially hung up her skates at the age of 26, the young woman who competed for years in homemade costumes because money was tight had co-authored books, appeared on television specials, and won endorsement contracts with companies from Chevrolet to Disney. She also became a co-owner of East West Ice Palace in California.

Soon after Kwan’s skating retirement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tapped her as an unpaid public diplomacy envoy, representing the U.S. in appearances around the world. She continued her travels as an envoy under Secretary of State Clinton and her successor, John Kerry.

Always goal-oriented, Kwan also returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations and political science at the University of Denver and her master’s degree at Fletcher. Attending graduate school was intimidating, since she had been homeschooled for years during her skating career, but Kwan reminded herself that “the best way to learn is to make mistakes.”

Fletcher “helped sharpen the skills that you need to succeed, especially in the Foreign Service, in the field,” she said. “It helped me harness my passion to make a difference in the world.”

Right before her Fletcher graduation, Kwan became an advisor to the U.S.-China Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue, and the next year she was appointed as a State Department senior advisor for public diplomacy and public affairs. In the summer of 2015, Kwan moved to Brooklyn to support Clinton’s presidential campaign, signing a lease even before Clinton made her official announcement.

“I think following your passion and following what you believe in is the bottom line,” Kwan said, explaining her leap into the campaign. “I kind of do things, as my parents would say, head and heart first. … I want to do something I've set my mind to, and I'm pedal to the metal. That's sort of how I approach my life.”

When Clinton lost to Donald Trump, Kwan dealt with the disappointment as she had with others during her skating career: She got up and kept moving. She continued her work on the board of the Special Olympics and with the State Department and a few years later, at age 41, she shared happy news on Instagram: In January 2022, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Kalista Belle Kwan.

Ambassador Michelle Kwan listens to a woman at a gathering of female entrepreneurs in Belize

Economic development and gender equity are important to U.S. Ambassador Michelle Kwan. Here, she joins facilitator Ronelli Requena, right, at the August 2023 kick-off of the first-ever Academy for Women Entrepreneurs in Belize. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Embassy Belize

Kwan didn’t get to rest long after her baby announcement. The next day, she was formally nominated to the ambassadorship. She started in Belize 11 months later.

“Being a new mom arriving at post was a little frightening at first,” she said. “How am I going to do this? All the questions you can imagine, they all surfaced. Luckily, as people say, it takes a village, and I'm thankful and very fortunate to have that village.”

Kwan tries to model work-life balance for others at the embassy. Her daughter has many play dates with the children of embassy families, and her relatives and friends visit from the U.S. frequently. There’s no ice rink in Belize, but Kwan occasionally goes for a spin in a pair of roller hockey skates she’s had since her 20s. And she seems pleased to be using her star power and skills to help others.

“One surprise is how fun it is—how enjoyable it is to be serving alongside career diplomats,” she said. “I can't stress enough how rewarding it is to be here.”

The fun is partly in the snorkeling breaks and visits to mangrove-lined lagoons filled with plankton that give off a stunning blue glow. “You can’t really do an office offsite like that anywhere else,” she said.

But the deeper happiness lies in her sense of purpose, which comes from days like the recent one when she rode in a Black Hawk helicopter to view the porous, jungle-covered western border region that makes it hard for Belize to halt drug trafficking. Such firsthand observations help her make the case for greater investment to her colleagues in Washington, D.C.

Kwan’s also excited to work on goals like economic development and gender equity that are close to her heart. She knows from experience the importance of entrepreneurship: Her parents opened a restaurant the year after they arrived in the United States, and since her mother managed the business, Kwan and her siblings ate dinner there most nights when they were young.

To help women in Belize create small businesses, Kwan helped launch AWE—the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs—in late August. The eight-week training program is offered by the State Department around the globe, but this was its debut in Belize, with a group of about two dozen single mothers. “It was empowering them with the tools they need to succeed,” she said. “It was a game changer, an opportunity for them to change their lives.”

Looking every bit the diplomat she has become, in glasses, a black dress, and a red blazer with a pin of the U.S. and Belize flags on the lapel, she spoke to the press at the launch event. But she also urged a successful woman entrepreneur she met there to address the participants.

“It was not only me wearing my diplomat hat” saying that the program changes lives, Kwan said, “but an actual Belizean … who dealt with the same situation, at a crossroads of trying to make a difference and feed her family.”

The way that Kwan connects with ordinary people like this and tries to help them better their lives has for years fed speculation that she may someday run for office herself. But her response to inquiries about a political future is always a variation on “I never say never.” Asked what will be next after Belize, she left her options open.

“Really, it's one foot in front of the other for me,” she said. “I'm very present. It's hard to think what's going to happen two years from now.”

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