NEW YORK -- As Michelle Kwan chats with members of Figure Skating in Harlem, she sees a whole lot of herself in the young girls.
And those girls hope to emulate Kwan.
The nine-time U.S. champion and five-time world winner has been active with the inner-city club almost since its inception in 1997. She was honoured Monday night at the FSH gala for inspiring the hundreds of young girls who have been in the program.
"Michelle is the perfect role model for our students with the way she conducts herself as a person, as an athlete, as an employee of the state department," FSH founder Sharon Cohen said. "Her career and life show where hard work and perseverance and talent can take you."
Kwan, a two-time Olympic medallist , now serves as a senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs and as an envoy at the Department of State. Her husband, Clay Pell, is running for governor of Rhode Island.
Kwan's success in and out of sports didn't come easily, and she can recall times when she was in a similar situation to some of FSH's students.
She received grants from U.S. Figure Skating and from the Women's Sports Foundation during her formative years as a skater -- at a time when Kwan and older sister Karen weren't sure they could continue in the sport.
"These underserved young girls get an opportunity to skate they otherwise might not have," Kwan said. "My personal background, both Karen and myself ... our parents were not well off. To be able to afford a used pair of skates and hand-me-downs in costumes and other stuff, I remember that vividly.
"Imagine if one of those times you have to tell your kids, 'We can't afford it.' I can relate to that.
"And these young girls benefit so much. It really is about the skills you learn from sports. Physical activity, being with friends, teamwork, but also the discipline it takes, the hours of dedication, being able to concentrate on one thing at a time. You have to learn in life how to juggle things; being a student-athlete is the same as in life."
Kwan began her day with a visit to Haverstraw Elementary, a school in suburban Rockland County, where she spoke to fifth graders who just happened to be studying her career. She stressed the importance of opportunity, education and empowerment -- all themes Figure Skating in Harlem embraces.
Then Kwan headed to Wolman Rink in Central Park, where dozens of her peers were on hand to not only honour her, but to skate with the youngsters aged 6 to 18 who make up FSH's roster. Olympic medallists Scott Hamilton, Sasha Cohen, Tim Goebel, Paul Wylie, Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott showed up to support Kwan and Figure Skating in Harlem.
"Our students learn through the education programs and our skating program of the importance of working hard and asking for help when you need it," Cohen said. "They see the changes in themselves that this leads to, in their confidence and in their abilities to achieve their goals.
"Someone like Michelle gives them an incentive to work hard because they see the rewards, the personal rewards, that Michelle embodies. She exudes sportsmanship and grace and an inner drive, as well as outer success. Michelle worked to be the best she can be in all aspects, and anybody can learn from that. She carries herself with such assurance and grace. Those are traits that will help anyone succeed in this world."