Two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan stood among 1,000 people in Idaho on March 7. She was supposed to be in Seattle, as part of former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign, but after the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state, she was redirected to Idaho.
She remembered thinking to herself: This is a lot of people, should we be doing this? Is this safe?
That was her last trip.
Since, she has been social distancing at home in Los Angeles, stepping out of the house only to get groceries or to pick up prescription medication for her 65-year-old mother. Kwan has forbidden her mother to leave home; she's older and cannot afford to contract the virus, Kwan said. She's still working from home, waking up at 6 a.m. every day for her check-in call. She created a workspace for herself in her living room, and for the first time in years, she brought out the jump ropes and bands she used when she was training for the Olympics.
Like with everyone else, an uneasiness creeps into her when there's a power outage in her area and when she sneezes one too many times in a day.
Kwan, 39, is in a unique position. She's Chinese American, an Olympian and a diplomat -- giving her a rare perspective on the coronavirus pandemic, the postponement of the Olympics and renewed racism against Asian Americans. The Olympics being pushed back a year -- to July 23, 2021 -- is a "dream-crusher," but this is bigger than sport, this is lives at stake, Kwan said, and if staying home now means renewed hope for sport to move forward, that's a net positive.
She has family members in the forefront of the pandemic relief efforts. She has friends who have the virus. She's in a profession in which she travels around the country listening to people's challenges, and she owns two ice rinks in California that had to be shut down because of the pandemic.
The global crisis has prompted a personal level of anguish and frustration for Kwan.
"How it was called the China virus, I think it is very upsetting," Kwan recently said to ESPN.com. "I think being able to make sure that racism isn't brought into this -- a lot of people who have gone to the store right now, if you're Asian American, Pacific Islander, it's like it's your fault, and that is not acceptable. To me, it's disappointing and there is no room for any racism in the country or in the world."
In a recent interview, Kwan addressed these issues, what Olympic hopefuls should do during these uncertain times and what the future of sport could look like once we get past the peak of the pandemic:
The day everything changed for you, what were you doing? How were you feeling? When you stopped going on the road, how did you make that decision?
Watching the news and watching all of it happen, really spiral out of control, and it didn't hit me all at once. It was just like slowly going, "This is going to be really bad." What will it look like in terms of my work. ... I was supposed to go to Seattle, Washington, which was the epicenter for a lot of things that happened in Washington state. Instead of going to Washington, I ended up going to Idaho. It is really bad in some ways, but you take a step back and really think about the things we can do in this current climate. Things like writing things down, FaceTiming with friends and family. In terms of work, what it looks like and being innovative and creative in how we connect to people.
You're in a unique position as a great international competitor and a diplomat. What advice would you offer Olympians during these trying times?
I was talking to some of my family and friends about how difficult it is at this moment. I remember when I competed, taking two days off the ice really got me nervous. I felt like I lost my edge. In skating it's all about timing and how you stay in shape; you just can't get that same feeling by running up the stairs or taking a run. It's very different in terms of biometrics, in terms of everything. I can't imagine what they're going through at this moment. It's once every four years, and they have trained their whole lives for this moment, and it's a dream-crusher -- but at the same time there's more important things at this moment, and by postponing it, for them it's like being easy on yourself.
I think as an athlete, I was too hard on myself. If I didn't train that one day I was just beating myself up. At this moment really letting go of the circumstances, because it's really out of your control, really spending the time to connect with your family and friends and maybe write things down. My family members and friends, they always buy me notebooks. I have notebooks of everything. Be able to write things down, that was very helpful when I was training and when I was clearing my mind. Maybe it will give you a sense of how to train when you are actually able to go to the court, the racetrack or the arena.
What have you been up to the past three weeks? What is your routine?
The first two days I was like, "No problem." I didn't have a regimen. I wake up really early. I have a political call every morning at 6 a.m., so I am up. I try to have that athlete mentality of getting a coffee or breakfast in early to start the day, and then I send all my emails. I think it's creating your own schedule and regimen. For me, luckily, there is time to cook. I find creative things to make in the house. It might just be cans of beans, but putting spices and doing something different -- there's a lot of clever ideas out there in the social media area. And lots of chefs are doing Instagram things like, "What can you cook that's in your kitchen now?" and doing work. This is my work spot. And then I try to figure out -- I have got my yoga mats here, I have got some things like bands that were tossed in drawers that I haven't seen in 10 years, so I brought jump ropes that I used when I was competing at the Olympics and world championships.
What should happen next if you're an Olympic hopeful?
I think what athletes have to prepare for is the training that goes into qualifying for the Olympic Games. It's different in every sport and where they are at. Some are already chosen -- in figure skating, it's always the national championships that qualify you for the Olympic Games. I would tell the Olympic hopefuls that this is out of your hands. But there is an opportunity to put thought on paper and to really figure out what is it that you need in terms of the mental side -- what it is that you need to be able to get there. And staying healthy right now.
What sticks out in the conversations you've had with athletes, politicians, family and friends?
We are going through a really challenging time. Personally, I think of how it impacts athletes -- the Olympic Games, postponed. To me, I have two ice rinks in California. We had to shut them down. I see the athletes struggling not being able to do what they love. I think of the athletes, I think of the people in the front lines fighting this pandemic, I think of everybody, the food industry. The restaurants that are closed. My family used to own a Chinese restaurant, so how great the impact in these restaurants are going to be. I went to pick up some food yesterday and I was thinking, "I hope I can go there every week so I can support them in a way." I know they're open only certain hours. It's a small family restaurant. That is to me a global thing where it's everything you see in the news, how we are all impacted by this.
If there's one positive change that could come out of this, what would that be?
I know that people say there is a silver lining, but when we are going through this I am not sure what it is. Maybe it is the way we communicate with one another, that we are staying closer together. I think people stopped calling people. They just text or email, and I find it nice when people just call.