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Legacies of Determination and Sacrifice
Michelle Kwan is the most decorated ice skater in America with two Olympic medals, five world championships and nine U.S. championships. But last year, Kwan achieved something very different -- a master's degree in international relations from Tufts University.
"In the ice skating rink I was very comfortable in my atmosphere," explained Kwan during an Aspen Ideas Festival panel on Thursday centered on the idea of "What is a legacy worth?" The panel was moderated by U.S. Trust Chief Fiduciary Executive Chris Heilmann. Kwan's summary response: "What's life after skating? It's not like a career you can do for the rest of your life ... Nothing prepared me for that sense of identity crisis."
Kwan knew that she wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself so she left the rink to join academia, where she could begin a career of public service. "When I was skating I felt like everyone was focused on me," said Kwan. "I enjoy giving back, helping others."
Among the other luminaries on the panel, this was a common theme. "The people I respect are people who make sacrifices that go against their own self-interest," said David Breashears. A mountaineer and explorer who dedicated himself to climbing the world's most challenging peaks, Breashears now runs a non-profit called GlacierWorks that documents the effect of climate change on glaciers around the world.
Breashears believes that a legacy is an organic product when people live lives of risk and sacrifice. "When someone stands out in the dark corner, and no one has the foggiest notion of what they did," said Breashears, "and they pursue it for no money and no kudos for the benefit of other people, to me that's a legacy."
Risk is an essential element of heroic action, said NFL Hall of Fame football player Jim Brown. "The risk factor becomes very important because a lot of people don't like to take risks, they want to be popular and safe," said Brown.
After a storied record with the Cleveland Browns and a career in Hollywood making films such as the Dirty Dozen, Brown started Amer-I-Can an organization aimed to help youth, particularly those in violent communities. Since 1988, he has invited 400 gang members to his home.
"I treated them as I treated everyone else, and they felt good about having an opportunity not to lose face and to work out some of their differences," said Brown. "The bottom line is my wife and I each and every day work on stopping violence and educating young people in school."
Even if, as Breashears said, the concept of a legacy is hard to get your head around, "setting an example for others, being determined and succeeding -- is easy."