At first glance, this was like any other morning at the Dublin Iceland ice rink in the Bay Area. Dozens of young figure skaters were carving up the ice, diligently practicing their spins and turns while dreaming of becoming the next Michelle Kwan, Yuna Kim or Kristi Yamaguchi. But if you looked a little closer, you would have seen that one of the skaters didn’t have to dream too hard.
When she’s standing still on the ice, it’s easy for Kristi Yamaguchi and her 4-foot-11-inch frame to blend in with girls who are still years away from driving a car. But almost as soon as she starts moving, Yamaguchi sheds any semblance of anonymity. She glides across the ice with a speed and poise that makes these Olympic dreamers stop and take notice that there’s an Olympic champion in their midst.
Despite being long retired from competitive skating and 25 years after her gold medal-winning performance at the 1992 Winter Olympics, Yamaguchi still regularly works out on the ice. This morning she was still spinning and jumping across the ice with an intensity and pace as if she were a contender for the upcoming 2018 Olympics. But Yamaguchi wasn’t preparing for competition, she was five weeks away from headlining her star-studded “Golden Moment” skating shows.
After one of her morning practices, Yamaguchi took some time to talk with the Nichi Bei Weekly about the emergence of Asian American skaters, sharing the ice with her daughter, and how she never gets to really celebrate her championships.
‘Opening the Door’ to Asian American Skaters
“Golden Moment” will showcase some of the brightest ice skating stars in the world – 2017 U.S. national champion and Fremont, Calif. native Karen Chen, former U.S. national champion Mirai Nagasu, 2017 U.S. national silver medalist Vincent Zhou, former world champion Yuka Sato of Japan, two-time U.S. national champions Alex and Maia Shibutani (who are siblings), and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ekaterina Gordeeva, to name just some of the skaters.
The lineup is stacked with Asian and Asian American stars, but Yamaguchi insisted that she wasn’t trying to create an Asian- or Asian American-centered showcase.
“It’s not purposeful. It’s just that there’s a lot of world class Asian American skaters right now,” said Yamaguchi, who was born in Hayward, Calif. “It’s just an incredible time.”
But what sparked this Asian American skating renaissance? After figure skating made its Olympic debut in 1908, the sport was largely dominated by Europeans for more than 80 years. When Yamaguchi won the Olympic title in Albertville, France in 1992 — over Japan’s iconic Midori Ito, who won the silver medal — it’s believed that they were the first figure skaters of Asian descent to medal in Olympic singles competition.
She is still the only Asian American figure skater to win an Olympic title.
Yamaguchi shied away from affirming that she was the genesis of the Asian American skating movement. Instead, Yamaguchi credited another Asian American skater who preceded her.
“I remember one of my idols was Tiffany Chin, who was the only other Asian American skater at that top national level and world level,” said Yamaguchi. “She made me believe that I’m like her and made me believe that I could be like her someday. Hopefully, I was able to create the same kind of feeling for others.”
But while Chin was a former U.S. champion, she never medaled in the Olympics or won a world championship at the senior level. Yamaguchi won two world championships, the 1990 Goodwill Games, and numerous other amateur titles in addition to her 1992 Olympic gold medal. (That’s not counting her two U.S. national titles in pairs competition with San Jose’s Rudy Galindo).
“I was just hoping I could generate some interest and maybe help open the door to Asian American skaters,” said Yamaguchi. But after Yamaguchi’s historic win in 1992, it’s at least debatable whether she opened the door or kicked the door down.
It was only after Yamaguchi’s Olympic title when Kwan, Karen Chen, Nagasu, Zhou, Nathan Chen, and others not only emerged, but drove a sustained and deep bench of Asian American skaters representing the United States on the world stage.
Skating with Emma
While Yamaguchi doesn’t dwell on her skating legacy, she has used her fame as a figure skater to establish and build the Always Dream Foundation. Founded in 1996, the foundation has dispersed $2.5 million to philanthropic efforts like building a playground for kids with disabilities and helping underserved children. It now focuses much of its attention to aiding early childhood literacy.
Proceeds from the “Golden Moment” shows will help the foundation’s efforts for literacy programs in 13 Bay Area schools and fund reading programs across three states.
Yamaguchi said she was inspired to focus on early childhood education around the time she wrote a children’s picture book. She recalled, “Our kids were at that learning-to-read age, so literacy was just top of mind. The more we thought about it, the more sense it made to get to kids right at the beginning of life versus trying to fix a problem later on.”
It seems that Yamaguchi’s family-inspired philanthropic efforts and her life as a skater have come full circle. She’s recruited one of her daughters, Emma Hedican, 11, to skate with her in the “Golden Moment” shows. When the two perform in Hawai‘i, they’ll be skating along to a live rendition sung by Lea Salonga, the Tony Award-winning singer.
That would be a lot of pressure for most 11-year-olds. But to Emma’s credit, she never mentioned the pressure of performing. She only stated rather matter-of-factly, “It’s fun to skate around and do the things that you’ve been working on and doing your program.”
While Emma isn’t too concerned about performing for large crowds, she hinted at a big decision that the family might deal with soon.
“I play competitive soccer,” said Emma, whose father Bret Hedican himself was a professional in the National Hockey League. “I like playing soccer as much as I like to skate.”
When Emma was asked which sport she would choose, Yamaguchi looked over with a wistful gaze and all Emma could muster after a long pause was a sheepish, “I don’t know.”
Emma’s mom and skating partner insisted that the most important thing was to “instill in our kids what my parents instilled in us — that if you’re going to commit to something, you got to give 110 percent.”
Dedication Might Win You a Medal, But Not a Celebration
It may be that Yamaguchi couldn’t afford to give anything less than 110 percent. She describes herself as being very competitive, but she also ironically admitted, “I felt like I was the most unathletic person growing up.”
Yamaguchi and her siblings all played sports growing up. Her sister, Lori, performed internationally in baton twirling competitions and her brother, Brett, played baseball and basketball through high school. (For the record, Kristi is the only one in the family with an Olympic gold medal).
When asked how long she felt this way, she replied, “I still kind of do! I don’t have good hand-eye coordination with anything to do with a ball. And I was so small too. I was competitive in everything, though. I was always very competitive, which was still very helpful in skating.”
Yamaguchi put everything she had into skating. By the time she was in the fifth grade, she skated five to six days a week, often getting to the rink before dawn, and frequently skating after school as well. She even moved to Edmonton, Canada a few weeks after graduating high school to continue training with her long-time coach.
Yamaguchi’s dedication and competitive drive certainly paid off in the way of titles and championships. But while most sports fans might assume that winning a championship is immediately followed by champagne showers, Yamaguchi said the hours after winning Olympic gold were far from glamorous.
The night that Yamaguchi won the gold medal, everyone in her camp — her parents, sister, coach, choreographer, and a few others — went out to celebrate. But they left Kristi behind.
“Right after I had won, I was required to stay and do doping (the mandatory drug testing required of the athletes). That takes a few hours, and no one wanted to wait for me while I got drug tested,” she said, laughing. “By the time I was done, the arena was empty so I just had to catch the bus back to the Olympic Village otherwise I would’ve been just stuck there.
“I don’t think I got back to the Village until close to one o’clock in the morning. Since the (skating) competition was done, all of my skating friends were all out and having a good time. I was starving so I remember eating their half-eaten leftovers they had left behind before going out.”
Yamaguchi remembered that when her friends returned to the Olympic Village, they were incredulous to find the new Olympic champion eating their food scraps. Yamaguchi said that she responded, “I don’t care. I’m starving!”
Oddly, this wouldn’t be the last time in which Yamaguchi would win a highly publicized competition only to be deprived of the immediate spoils of victory.
In 2008, she was invited to participate as one of the contestants in the highly popular reality show “Dancing with the Stars” on ABC. Yamaguchi said that she was a fan of the show and admitted it was one of her guilty pleasures to watch the show with her friends to criticize questionable costume choices and bad dancing. So when the show came calling, Yamaguchi told her friends, “There is no way I’m doing this show! You’re going to say terrible things about me!”
But after much pleading from her friends and about a month of contemplating, she finally agreed to do it. Yamaguchi tempered her expectations by reminding herself that she was doing this to have fun. “I did have fun and I had an amazing time,” she said. “But the longer you stay in it, I thought to myself that I want to at least make the finals.”
The champion skater’s competitive juices kicked in and she ended up winning the contest.
Then history repeated itself. “The same thing happened!” exclaimed Yamaguchi while clasping her face. “The finale is a live show that ends at 11 p.m. eastern, and literally right after the show I got taken away to the airport to get on a redeye flight to New York to do a 6 a.m. interview with ‘Good Morning America.’ It happened again!
“After taking pictures with the champions’ mirror ball trophy, my family went off to have a nice dinner and celebration and I had to head to the airport.”
At least for the “Golden Moment” shows Yamaguchi will have at least one family with her when the show’s over. As the shows’ organizer and headliner, maybe…just maybe… she’ll be fortunate enough to eat something more than scraps left behind by the other skaters.
The Golden Moment shows will be performed Sunday, Sept. 3 at the SAP Center in San Jose and Sept. 9 and 10 at the Blaisdell Center in Honolulu, benefitting Yamaguchi’s Always Dream Foundation.
Tickets for Sept. 3 are on sale with a special rate for “Friends of the Nichi Bei Foundation,” which includes a special discount and savings on Ticketmaster fees, available through www.sapcenter.com/reader (Enter Code: reader) or by phone at (408) 977-4715. Tickets for Sept. 9 and 10 are on sale, available through the Blaisdell Center box office, via www.ticketmaster.com, all Ticketmaster locations, and by phone at (808) 768-5252.