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Words of wisdom from Michelle Kwan -- that's Dr. Michelle Kwan

May 10, 2010 |  3:03 pm

Kwan1 

Early this year, at the end of a phone conversation with Michelle Kwan about eventual 2010 Olympic champion Kim Yuna of South Korea, we began talking about Kwan's studies, and I told Michelle that what she has done since her skating career ended impresses me even more than the two Olympic medals, five world titles, nine U.S. titles and widespread admiration she earned on the ice.

Kwan could have spent the rest of her life as "America's Guest,'' raking in big bucks as a motivational speaker and corporate schmoozer and appearing in ice shows.

Instead, she has gone on to become a U.S. public diplomacy envoy, a graduate of Denver University and a master's degree student at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. She has allowed a curiosity about the world -- that was piqued but unsatisfied by all her foreign travel for skating -- to become a beacon for her intellectual pursuits.

That obviously impressed Southern Vermont College as well. The school chose Kwan to be its 2010 commencement speaker and made her an honorary doctor of humane letters Saturday.

As she said in her speech, "Sooner or later -- and probably sooner -- you have to adapt, change course, and give new things a try. ... My attitude is: Prepare for the new, however unexpected … and don’t linger in the old, however comfortable. Sometimes we just have to move on, content with what we had, and preparing for whatever may come.''

The college graciously forwarded the entire text of Dr. Kwan's remarks. You can read it on the jump.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Michelle Kwan delivers the commencement speech Saturday at Southern Vermont College, which made her an honorary doctor of humane letters. Credit: Southern Vermont College

Thank you very much, and good afternoon. Chairman Altes, President Gross, trustees, faculty, parents and members of the class of 2010.

You’re very kind to invite me to this 83rd commencement of Southern Vermont College. What a joyous occasion and what a lovely place. I thank you for letting me share in the moment.

It’s been a pleasure to meet my fellow honorees, Ed Haberek and Jim Wainscott. And I appreciate President Gross’s very warm introduction. If you listened carefully to her description of my career, you might have noticed that I’m actually still a student myself -- with a year to go in a master’s program.  I must be the only commencement speaker in the country who just handed in three term papers. And now that I’ve got this honorary doctorate, I wonder how my professors will react if I insist that they should now call me “Dr. Kwan.” But around this campus, let’s keep it informal. Just call me Michelle the Mountaineer Maniac.

Today marks the best kind of achievement: Hard earned. Encouraged by others. Celebrated in a moment. And lasting a lifetime. An awful lot of people go through life wishing they had gotten an education and that’s one regret you’ll never have. In all the days to come, never forget this one. Always treasure what you accomplished at this great college. I’m delighted to express what all of your families and friends are thinking right now: You set a high goal. You made it all the way. And we’re proud of you. Congratulations.

You’re each on a new path, starting today. I know the feeling because I’m on one myself. And it’s kind of a different experience for me, because there is no ice on the road ahead. My competitive skating career is behind me, more or less. I’ve settled into the routine of student life, and mostly I like the change of pace.  Now and then, people still stop me to say hello. Sometimes they recognize me, and sometimes they only think they recognize me. There was the time in a shopping mall in Newport Beach when a woman walking by did a double-take. She said, “I know you! You did my nails!”

As far back as I can remember, skating was basically everything to me. And for a while I assumed it would always be so. When I thought of my future, I sure didn’t see graduate school in the picture. In fact, it would have seemed enough just to finish up my college degree -- which by the way I managed to do, on the 10-year plan. But when you have a career like figure skating, in which 28 is considered old, you had better be flexible. Sooner or later -- and probably sooner -- you have to adapt, change course and give new things a try.

Maybe some of you feel that way right now, as you close one time in your life and begin another. It’s a safe bet that you and I will face even more transitions up ahead -- and graduation might be among the easier ones. My attitude is: Prepare for the new, however unexpected ... and don’t linger in the old, however comfortable. Sometimes we just have to move on, content with what we had, and preparing for whatever may come.

That frame of mind doesn’t always come naturally -- at least it didn’t for me. I’m the type who wants to know what is next, and exactly what will be expected of me. As a skater, my whole life was about planning, practicing and competing. Nothing was left to chance. 

After a while I found myself looking at most everything that way. I remember thinking, “By the time I am 30 years old, I’ll have everything under control -- my past goals met, my future mapped out, my worries gone, my life a picture of stability.”  Well, I’m now 29 … and I’m thinking, “Hmmm... How about we make that 40?” 

I suppose this is a common mistake. Whether it’s winning a competition, finishing a degree, getting the right job, paying off a loan, or finding the perfect partner -- we always imagine that at some point all the waiting, worrying and striving will finally be over. We expect some magic moment of arrival, when all the pieces settle permanently into place, and life can finally begin.

But I’m starting to realize, and maybe you are too, that things usually don’t turn out that way. Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, and everything right where we want it, there’s always some new challenge to contend with. So even while we pursue our goals, we shouldn’t put off enjoying life, thinking happiness waits for us at some far-off destination. We should take life on its own terms, and look for happiness in the here and now.

When I think of the men and women I most admire, one quality they share is a willingness to work and sacrifice for great and difficult things. Such people were all around me from an early age, most of them figure skaters wanting the very same thing I wanted. And there is no stronger motivation than knowing that when you’re not practicing, someone else is. 

As a competitive skater, you win some and you lose some. But on good days, and even on the bad ones, I found in skating what people discover in every hard endeavor, whatever it might be: that the finest moments aren’t necessarily when you finish first, but simply when you gave your best … when you did it heart and soul, and held nothing back. 

In the words of the founder of the modern Olympics: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” This is the Olympic spirit, and it’s good advice for all of life.

Of course, in most pursuits you can’t look up on the scoreboard and know precisely where you stand. And so most of the time, in your lives and careers, you’ll be the one scoring yourself. Let the standard always be high. In any field or calling, there will be moments when you’re tempted to take the easy path -- to settle for something short of your best and call it “good enough.” Never give in to that attitude, because it can only drag you down. 

There is work in the world that only you can do. Give that work your all, and you will find not only advancement but self-respect. Your high standards may not always be welcome or popular. But they are always needed, and they are never worth trading away.

For all the intensity of athletics, there are no real stakes outside the arena. But you do learn something in sports that is good and true everywhere you go, and that’s the value of aspiration. There are goals that demand and deserve your absolute commitment, and I hope that you will find them in your own lives -- because that is when the qualities of greatness in you are awakened. That is what inspires the discipline to sacrifice … the patience to endure … and the vision to succeed. 
 
In every great thing we try, there are bound to be disappointments. Aspiration is what carries you through.  I guess that’s why the first lesson they give you in skating is how to fall. They start with that because, for anyone on skates, there are a lot of hard falls up ahead, no matter how good you become. Everyone takes a spill and the true test is how we recover. The athletes I look up to are the same kind of people I respect in general. They are not always the top finishers with the medals, but the ones with the will and courage to get up every time and keep going. 

So hold on to the hopes and the sense of possibility you have today, and don’t let any of life’s tumbles take it away. Don’t be afraid to fail, because that only makes you afraid to try. 

You may discover as well, no matter how far you travel, that men and women everywhere have the same basic hopes and fears that you and I have. These days, we’re often reminded of all the differences among cultures. Of course the differences are many, and they are usually to be respected. 

But in my experience as a competitor across the world, and now as an envoy for our country, what always strikes me are the deeper things that people everywhere have in common. Whatever the culture and whatever the language, there are words for freedom, justice, kindness and decency. Everyone knows what they mean. Men and women everywhere seek to live by them. And when the right spirit prevails, differences tend to fall away as people set their minds to a common purpose. 

My skating team, for example, came from all over the world: My coach was American; my trainer German; and my choreographer Canadian. But whatever the differences among us, we respected each other and stayed focused on the mission. Some successes you have in life will belong to you alone. But many others will come through teamwork -- and in the final tally, they may rank among the best experiences you’ll ever have.

These past few years, you’ve had the added good fortune of being here, in the beautiful town of Bennington, receiving the best of a fine American college. It’s a moment for looking back with gratitude and looking forward with confidence. It’s a day of achievement and joy, and may there be many more such days ahead for each of you. 

I hope the pride and good wishes surrounding you now will carry you onward into years of accomplishment. I wish all of you success and happiness wherever life takes you. I thank you for this honor, and, like President Gross, I will always count myself a proud member of the Southern Vermont College class of 2010.

Thank you very much.
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