Figure-skating champion Michelle Kwan will represent America as the country’s first public diplomacy envoy, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice announced Thursday at a State Department press briefing.
“Michelle embodies the American dream,” Rice said of the five-time world figure skating winner and nine-time U.S. title holder. “The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she rose to the heights of artistic and athletic excellence through her discipline, her drive and her determination.”
Kwan said she hopes that by telling her own story she can help young people around the world better understand the U.S. and its values. “I hope they learn from my experience some of the lessons that I’ve learned from competing, like dedication and to persevere, to have goals and how to go about achieving your goals, the importance of teamwork, diversity,” she told PEOPLE.
“I think that is a lot of the values that American culture has: diversity, the dreams that we have and opportunities we have,” she added. “I think that’s the message that I can send.”
Her first mission in her new role will be a trip to Asia, possibly in January. “I look forward to interacting with young people and sharing positive things about America, its culture, its people, and the great things America stands for,” she said. “As an athlete I’ve always been proud to represent the United States. And now to do it in this position is really, really special to me.”
The 26-year old put away her skates after an injury forced her to withdraw from the 2006 Olympics in February. She’s been focusing on her studies at the University of Denver, where she’s a sophomore.
“I think competing really opened my eyes to how many souls you can reach,” she told PEOPLE. “I always wanted to somehow serve our country and represent the United States and I did that in two Olympics. I wanted to do something different. Going to school and studying political science and international studies, maybe I can have a bigger hand in it and maybe make a bigger difference.”
Rice noted that Kwan is following in her footsteps: Rice attended the University of Denver, studied the same subjects and even skated competitively. “She’s on her way, I’m sure, to being Secretary of State one day,” Rice said.
But when asked what she’d like to be doing in 20 years, Kwan demurred. “It’s hard to say. I take one thing at a time.”
In the near term, she may return to competitive skating, she said. “For this year I’m taking a year off and focusing on school. Maybe next year I’ll come back and lace up my skates,” she said, but added that it’s too early for her to be thinking about the 2010 Olympics.