Michelle Kwan's Fallen 131K Times—and We Could All Use Her Method to Getting Up
May 9, 2018
Imagine wiping out on ice, in front of a crowd, in a moment you’ve spent years working towards.
Now, imagine doing that 131,000 times.
Figure skater Michelle Kwan did the math for Shine, and that’s how many times she’s probably fallen on the ice in her 21-year-long career.
The enormous stat might make you cringe, but it doesn’t for Kwan. Something you learn after hitting the ice that many times: embarrassment is just a pitstop on the way to growth.
“People ask me, ‘Do you get embarrassed when you fall?’ and the truth is I don’t,” Kwan tells Shine. “Falling means I tried, and if I don’t fall, if I don’t make mistakes, I’ll never learn from it. There’s always a lesson to be learned when you fall.”
It’s a piece of sage wisdom that Kwan learned the hard way, and one we actually watched her learn as spectators of the sport. She cites the U.S. Championships in Nashville as a key moment. She was 16 at the time and the number one figure skater in the world. The pressure was on for her to defend her title.
She nailed her first jump in her routine–but then missed her second, both her hands and knees hitting the ice.
The fall left her rattled, and she fell two more times and made mistakes throughout the entire performance. Cue the announcers literally saying: “It’s just a shock because she’s been so perfect.”
She ended up coming in second place.
“Which I now know is pretty amazing, but all I could think of was all the mistakes I made and losing the National Champion title,” Kwan says. “The whole evening played on my psyche, and I could barely stand up afterwards.”
What kept her going: realizing she had only two options. “I could throw in the towel and give up. Or, I could learn from my falls and get better,” she says.
"I could throw in the towel and give up. Or, I could learn from my falls and get better." - Michelle Kwan
Kwan picked the latter option. It’s that mix of grit, resilience, and grace in the face of failure that led her to become the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history.
Those skills have also carried her through challenges in her post-skating career—as a graduate student at Tufts University, as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department, and now in her role as a member of the Special Olympics board of directors.
“When I finally hung up my skates for good professionally, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I trained for 20 years of my life to be the best skater I could be—now what?’” she says. “But then I realized there’s a toolkit I had from skating that teaches me about perseverance and setting goals and learning how to fall—and it’s translatable in anything that I do.”
The Kwan Method of Falling
An overwhelming feeling of nostalgia being at @pyeongchang2018. I still remember like it was yesterday when I was 7 years old watching @brianboitano at the ‘88 Olympics and how I skated around the living room daydreaming of one day being there. I sometimes pinch myself that my dream as a little girl came true and I had the incredible honor to proudly represent 🇺🇸. As I cheer on @teamusa in Korea I can’t help but to imagine the millions of girls and boys jumping, twirling, and gliding around their homes aspiring to grow up and call themselves an Olympian. Go @teamusa #letsgo #olympics #olympicspirit #TBT #20yearsago😱
So, how does Kwan grow the most from each of her missteps, on the ice and off?
The first piece of wisdom Kwan turns to after a fall is this: mistakes are inevitable. “I was a five-time World Champion and I still fell,” she says.
No matter how much we plan and practice, mistakes are human. Instead of replaying her mistakes out of embarrassment or shame, Kwan tries to get curious and dig a little deeper. She asks herself:
Why did this mistake happen? What is it that I can change? How can I improve?
On the ice, it might be as subtle as the placement of her foot or the build-up to her jump. In your life, it might be an approach to a project at work or a communication style that’s not resonating with a friend or partner.
Instead of greeting your next misstep as a failure, try getting curious about your process and what you can do differently the next time.
“It’s helpful to think about the next thing you have to do, instead of dwelling on the mistake,” she says.
Once Kwan knows what she can change, that’s when she puts her head down and tries again. Her goal is to improve—even if it's just a little bit. She taps her persistence and patience to stick with this cycle: try again, fall, learn, improve.
“If I was trying to, say, master a tricky jump—like the triple loop—and kept falling and falling, I knew I just had to put my head down and keep inching forward,” she says. “And sometimes I only moved forward three centimeters—but that’s still progress.“
Kwan knows it’s easier said than done. Sometimes, the distance between where you are now and where you want to be—whether it’s landing that triple loop or nailing that presentation—can feel insurmountable. But the more you learn from your falls, the easier it gets to regain your footing and try again, she says.
“I trained my whole life to do everything in my power not to fall," she says. "But the biggest lesson is not how to avoid falling, but how to train myself to get up and keep going when I do. You have the choice and the strength to get up and try again. And again. And again.”
"You have the choice and the strength to get up and try again. And again. And again." - Michelle Kwan
Next time you find yourself cringing over a fail, try the Kwan Method and ask yourself: How can I not just get up, but grow from this?
Want more advice from Michelle Kwan? Check out her Shine Story, where she explains her method of falling, in the Shine iOS app.