Kristi Yamaguchi, Unlaced
Updated: Dec 12, 2018
On the eve of the National Championships, Nicole Chung and champion skater Kristi Yamaguchi discuss life after the Olympics, what it means to be 'the first,' and the state of figure skating in 2018.
BY NICOLE CHUNG JAN 3, 2018
This month, Yamaguchi is serving as honorary co-chair of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose (January 3-6). It was one of the great thrills of my life to speak with her recently about her career and family life, her foundation’s advocacy, what her Olympic gold medal meant to the Asian American community, and how the sport she loves has continued to change in the years since her victory.
"The gold meant so much more than I had ever thought it would to other people."
Nicole Chung: Hello, Kristi. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I can’t believe it!
Kristi Yamaguchi: Thank you, and listen, I know I said it before, but I was beyond flattered by the piece you wrote for The New York Times. It was amazing.
NC: Thank you for reading it! That’s probably my favorite piece I’ve written. You really meant so much to me, and to so many kids and Asian Americans of my generation. Watching you skate made me feel like all sorts of things were possible. I promise I won’t gush the whole time, but I do want to tell you that you made my life better, in this real, measurable way.
Who were your heroes growing up? Who did you really look up to?
KY: My very first role model from skating was Dorothy Hamill, because I started skating in the late ’70s, and she was very much America’s sweetheart and doing something I was starting to love. My parents were huge role models, and still are. My other favorite athletes, growing up, were Michael Jordan and Bonnie Blair.
In skating, and similar to your experience in terms of having an Asian American role model, Tiffany Chin was the first U.S. National Champion of Asian American descent, so she was someone I really looked up to; she was a couple of generations ahead of me, and pushed the boundaries of our sport.
NC: Were you ever able to meet her?
KY: I did meet her! She’s from southern California, and once in a while I’d skate in southern California and she’d be there. I remember a time when she came up to northern California and skated at the rink where I trained; I was just in awe to be on the ice with her.
NC: The first time I remember watching you was in 1991, when the U.S. women swept the medals at the World Championships. What was it like to be part of that historic night, competing against Tonya [Harding] and Nancy [Kerrigan]?
KY: I feel like 1991 was a pivotal point in my career. I had kind of struggled on and off up to that point as far as where I fit within the sport and the path I was taking. Shortly before the World Championships, I had a moment where I was questioning myself . . . I was feeling down on myself, down on skating, and I really had to reassert my passion and find it again, and bring a new perspective to skating.
I found that before the World Championships in 1991. The training was incredible and positive, and when I got there I was determined to enjoy every minute of it. I was always all business, focused on getting the job done, but I remember smiling and enjoying myself in practice — I never used to smile when I was training! — and having more fun. I skated with a lighter heart, and felt like the joy of it came out in my skating.
At the time, the U.S. was super competitive. Nancy and I were friends and had come up the ranks together since we were fourteen — we were tough competitors, but there was a lot of mutual respect, and we obviously respected what Tonya brought to the sport and felt really strong going in as a team. When it ended up being a U.S. sweep, we felt so proud of our team — and yes, girl power, too. It was so fun, and at the time, still friendly competition between the three of us.
NC: Heading into the 1992 Olympics, everyone was talking about the triple axel race. I feel like we see some version of this every Olympics; there’s always pressure to be more daring, more dangerous, do more combinations and more [quadruple jumps] — and this is even more strongly incentivized by the current judging system, which is not the one you came up with. At the time, it must have felt a little strange to go into the Olympics as the reigning World Champion, yet not the clear favorite because Tonya and Midori Itohad the triple axel. How did that affect you?
KY: You know, I think I let it fuel me in training. I continued to work on the triple axel, but by September/October of 1991, I knew if I didn’t have it, it wasn’t going to happen. So I thought, OK, let’s focus on what I can do to separate myself from the other skaters. The triple lutz-triple toe loop combination became that much more important, and I continued to work on my presentation; I knew I had to play to my strengths. Ultimately, you can only do what you can do, and even then the results aren’t in your hands — it’s up to the judges. At times, yes, being world champion, I felt a little slighted that there was so much talk about the triple axel being what would win, but I believed it wasn’t the end-all, be-all. I knew it was a risky jump, and I had to be ready. I really wanted to fight for what I could do.
NC: There’s been a lot of talk about whether the current system rewards athletic feats and power at the expense of some artistic expression. How do you feel the newer system is understood within and outside the sport? How well do you think it’s working?
KY: Oh, loaded question! [laughs] How much time do we have? I think there are pros and cons. I think the idea was right, to try to take the [judges'] subjectivity out of our sport — or lessen it — and provide more transparency. But it’s a very complicated system. I speak to competitors, and even now they are still getting notes every few weeks about changes and adjustments, and then they need to make adjustments in their programs. It’s so strategic now. You are having to mold a little more into a specific kind of skater to take advantage of the system. The downside is that it has, I feel, alienated not just the casual skating fan, but even the avid one a little, because the system is really hard to understand. There’s still so much wiggle room that you don’t know what judge is giving what to each skater — unless you go into the protocols and look at all the numbers, but who’s going to do that? It’s a little harder to connect, I think, with what’s going on.
"I’d never skated just to win a gold medal before; I’d never put that kind of pressure on myself."
On the other hand, the skaters are better than ever. Any sport is going to progress; each generation is going to improve upon the next. But it is so incredibly technically focused right now, that’s just the era our sport is in. Who knows? It may swing the other way at some point.
NC: Post-Olympics, I think some people were a little surprised you went pro, because Lillehammer was just two years away. Can you talk a little about that decision?
KY: Going into ’92, I think one way I deflected pressure was by telling myself there was another Olympics just two years away. But then after the Olympics, after winning, your world just explodes. I knew I was going to go home and compete at Worlds in Oakland and defend my title, but after that there were a lot of decisions to be made. The opportunity for professionals to reinstate [the Boitano rule] for the 1994 Olympics came about, so I kind of had the best of both worlds: I could skate professionally, and if I felt like coming back to compete, I could. So I joined Stars on Ice, which was an incredible tour.
NC: I saw you in that a few times!
KY: So, you know, I was skating with legends! Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser, Rosalynn Sumners — it was a dream come true. A year later, when it came time to decide — am I taking a break from the tour and going back to train for another Olympics? — I watched Chen Lu and Nancy and Yuka Sato compete in the ’93 Worlds and thought, Do I really want to put myself out there again? What would my goal be?
In my mind, it would be to defend my title, but I’d never skated just to win a gold medal before; I’d never put that kind of pressure on myself. My entire Olympic experience in ’92 was so positive. I knew if I went back, it was not going to be the same. It was an amazing opportunity, but it wasn’t my turn again. I know it was the right decision. And once I made it, I thought, OK, I’m not looking back.
NC: There was an explosion of professional competitions and tours and shows at the time you went pro. Did you feel that professional skating gave you more freedom to express yourself, be who you were on the ice?
KY: Absolutely, and that’s what I was longing for so much as a skater. I loved competition, I thrived on it, but I could not wait to turn pro. It was a different era — there was a more distinct line between professional and amateur skating — and I couldn’t wait to skate to contemporary music, express myself in a different way, challenge myself with different types of music. Classical is still my favorite to skate to, but it was so much fun to skate to En Vogue! One of my first professional numbers was "Never Gonna Get It," and I think people were like, oh, my God, who is this girl? [Laughs]It was great to show that side of my personality and share it with fans.
NC: Before you, there’d been Tiffany Chin and Debi Thomas, but overall very few women of color in U.S. skating. You were the first and are still the only Asian American Olympic Champion in figure skating. The sport was expanding in terms of who did it, who it was available to. Do you remember thinking about any of that as you came up the ranks?
KY: When I competed, I wasn’t thinking about that at all, I was just focused on skating. I had grown up a California girl; we were fortunate to live in a diverse community. After the Olympics, I think my eyes were opened by the incredible amount of support from the Asian American community, and in particular the Japanese American community. It was a little intimidating at first. At first I didn’t really understand it; I was just grateful. The gold meant so much more than I had ever thought it would to other people.
I began to appreciate other things even more — like the journey my own family had to become American, to let me pursue the American dream . . . My grandparents’ internment [during World War II] was not talked about much when we were kids. There were references to "camp," and we were old enough to know when reparations happened. My paternal grandfather received his U.S. citizenship two years before he died. He just believed in this country so much, and wanted his family to be here. My mom was born in an internment camp, and my dad’s family were there, too. They all had to recreate a life for themselves — you just look back and think, Wow, that was only one generation ago. It’s amazing how far they’ve come. There were so many sacrifices that went into establishing themselves here in this country so I could be an ice skater.
NC: You said you were a little surprised by the excitement of the Asian American community after you won. Was there a particular moment that made you realize what a big deal it was to people?
"I really wanted to fight for what I could do."
KY: You know, one of the first organizations that reached out to me was the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. They said, "We’re so proud of you! If you need help with anything, let us know." At that time, my mom and I did all my fan mail, and she was like, "I don’t know what to do with all this!" So they had volunteers who helped us with the fan mail. We got to know the executive director, and he later did an interview with the local news. Hearing him speak about why they were so proud and why they wanted to help us — what he thought I represented to the Japanese American community — I think that’s when it started to hit home.
I really appreciated the support and outreach from the Asian American community. It was an honor to hopefully help open a door to new possibility, to people’s imaginations, to other kids’ dreams. Hopefully the boundaries to kids pursuing what’s in their hearts are fewer and fewer.
NC: You’re married to hockey player and fellow Olympian Bret Hedican, and have two daughters. Have your kids expressed any wish to be athletes like you? How much have you talked to them about those experiences?
KY: Emma, our youngest, skates, and she loves it — but she also plays competitive soccer, and I see her being pretty dedicated to that, so we’ll see. I think our kids understand quite a bit of what we did, and now that they’re older they get it more — what goes into being a professional athlete or an Olympian. I think they respect the experiences we both had. They know it takes work, it takes years and years, there are going to be challenges. My husband and I are both open to whatever it is they choose, we just know it has to be their passion.
Having kids was always something I wanted, somewhere down the road. It’s been the biggest joy of my life. People say, "Even better than the Olympics?" and it’s like, well, yes, of course — not that I usually compare the two.
NC: You founded the Always Dream Foundation, which is focused on early childhood literacy. Why this particular cause?
KY: When the foundation was established in 1996, I wanted it to be for children. We were in existence for about 15 years before focusing on early literacy. The change came when I moved back to the Bay Area; the kids were starting school, and I knew I’d have more time to dedicate to the foundation, so we committed ourselves to refocus and go more narrow and deep in one area. As a small foundation looking at early childhood, seeing the positive impact of reading and exposing kids to books, we figured that was a critical foundation that needed to be set before a child could have any success in school or beyond.
"It was an honor to help open a door to new possibility, to people’s imaginations, to other kid's dreams."
Also, at the time, I had just written my first picture book, "Dream Big, Little Pig!" My kids were 4 and 6 at the time, so we were reading all the time at home — the same books every night, you know how it is. There are so many great classics for children. I’d always wanted to try writing a children’s book, and I thought, Why not do it now, our kids are the perfect age and they could be part of it! I don’t see myself as a "writer," so much — having a message I wanted to pass on to kids was really the inspiration. Sometimes people ask if I’m going to move on to chapter books now, and I’m like, I don’t think so . . .
NC: ’Kay, listen, if you ever need a ghostwriter or collaborator, I am right here.
KY: [laughs] Seriously? OK, thanks! I might take you up on that.
NC: Yes! I have nothing but time for this project.
What are some of your favorite projects your foundation has been able to do?
KY: We found a great partnership with Raising a Reader and created a program that we brought into kindergarten classrooms. We decided to focus on kindergarten as a child’s first entry into school. Currently our program operates throughout the Bay Area, as well as Arizona and Hawaii. In the last six years, it’s consisted of a book bag program in the classroom, where kids get lots of new books in their book bags to take home. We also brought in e-books on tablets, so they could experience books on both platforms. Starting this fall, we’ll be looking to have the children take their devices home — we’re going to select a high-quality library and give them access. It’ll be aimed at encouraging family engagement, helping parents be reading teachers for their children at home.
NC: OK, last question: Are you going to Pyeongchang?
KY: At this point, I’m not going, which I’m a little sad about. It’s the only Winter Olympics other than Torino that I’m missing. It’s going to be incredible, and I’ve never been to Korea so I was hoping to go. But obviously I’ll be watching — you may hear later on about some stuff I’ll be doing stateside!
The U.S. team will be great, and I think there will be strong Asian American representation, too. We could have the Shibutanis as well as Madison Chock and Evan Bates in ice dancing, and Karen Chen is a strong contender as well as Vincent Zhou and Nathan Chen. Ashley Wagner, I think, will round out the women’s team, and Jason Brown is an amazing skater. Between Nathan and Jason and Vincent and Adam Rippon, it’ll be a fight to see who gets those spots on the men’s side. We will have a strong and diverse Olympic team.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Nicole Chung is a writer and editor in the DC area. Find her on Twitter: @nicole_soojung